Why We Love Celebrity Memoirs

Steve_MartinI think most people would agree that the appeal of memoirs lies in the worlds they take us to and the struggles of people who may or may not be like us. We want to see the world through someone else’s eyes and experience how they handle life.

Melissa_GilbertCheering for the underdog is something most of us like to do. We’re ordinary people who want others like ourselves to come out ahead, even if we’re stuck in our own ordinary lives. We also want to know that chasing dreams is not a waste of time, that achieving them is possible. If someone else can reach the top of the mountain, maybe we can, too.

Gavin_MacLeodIn the case of someone whose life is shattered by their choices, we look for the turning point, the signs leading up to the fall. Drawn to tragedy and moved by suffering, we sympathize or empathize — and perhaps learn from their mistakes.

But are we drawn to celebrity memoirs, especially those of actors,Rosie_Perez for the same reasons?

It could be that humans are simply curious, like cats chasing shadows in a box. Curiosity could account for some of this attraction, but it might be more than that.

Tina_TurnerAs an audience, we watch actors on the screen or stage interacting in the most intimate of ways, both physically and emotionally. We laugh when they laugh, cry when they cry, feel for them in their suffering, as well as their joy. Our hearts pound when a character we care about steps into danger. Then we leave the theater with nubs for fingernails, and stuffed full of popcorn we can’t remember eating. Is it any wonder Roger_Moorewe feel something for these strangers who share their lives with us year after year? When we’re drawn to someone, don’t we naturally want to know more about them?

Regardless of the reasons why some kinds of memoirs are more popular than others, they give us a chance to experience life from a different perspective and end up enriching our own lives because of it — and that’s a good thing.

What do you think of my theory about why we love celebrity memoirs?

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Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Six Elements of Fiction

Novel Memoir Series Word CloudIn my ongoing series, Writing a Memoir like a Novel, I share what I know about writing fiction as it applies to memoir. I hadn’t tried my hand at a memoir until I took on the project that became This New Mountain, but I have written short stories, novellas and novels. You might understand, then, why my approach to writing AJ Jackson’s true story (of a feisty private detective and grandmother) included the elements that make up a work of fiction.

If you’d like your memoir to have the depth and flow of a novel, try adding fictional elements — and check out my posts about crafting characters, setting, dialogue, a compelling opening, point of view, and story arc. Here are the summaries of the six articles in the series so far:

Characters

Apply fiction techniques to your “built-in” characters to bring your story, and the real-life people who inhabit it, to life. Physical description doesn’t tell us who a person is — we understand others by their actions and the choices they make. Weave in details a little at a time to reveal the characters as the story unfolds. By sharing the story behind the story, the reader gains an understanding of the why of things. Show how a person deals with change to shed light on that person’s character. Reveal the familiar, those common things we all relate to, to get the reader emotionally involved. Other details, such as relationships, ambition, and personal flaws, add layers and reveal character.

Setting

Creating memorable settings – without unnecessary detail – strengthens the writing and draws the reader into the story. Present the setting through the eyes of your character. Determine why a particular place is important to the character and how she feels about it. Use historical research to take you beyond the limits of your own memory. Make your story immediate and real to the reader by using just enough sensory detail.

Dialogue

Dialogue can reveal motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information, and can create tension, suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory, produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions: use contractions; don’t overuse names; avoid niceties and information dumps; use dialect and vernacular sparingly; beware exclamation points (!!!); structure paragraphs and use tags/beats to make it clear who is speaking.

A Compelling Opening

Memoir readers don’t expect action-packed openings, but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story. A good opening will include: a character we know and understand; a situation that presents tension; an indication of the larger story problem or conflict; the general tone of the story (such as light-hearted or serious).

Point of View

Take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel. Write an “eye memoir” versus an “I memoir.” Step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. In the end, your memoir is less about what happened and more about the importance of your journey, what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

Story Arc

A story arc moves the main character (you or the subject of the memoir) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir becomes a disconnected, chaotic jumble. Knowing and understanding your story arc – the beginning-middle-end structure – keeps the writer focused on what the memoir is about and acts as a guide to know what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

In the months ahead, I’ll be posting more in the Writing a Memoir Like a Novel series to include pacing, scene structure, and passive voice.

If there is a specific topic you’d like me to address in a future post, please leave a comment.

Writing a Memoir: Options for Non-Writers

What many people do not realize is that writing your life story is like telling your story to a good friend who is there to listen and ask open-ended questions that will lead into the heart of your life. ~ Write Wisdom, Inc

Looking BackWe all have stories inside of us, life experiences that just won’t leave us alone. For years these untold tales, or maybe oft-told tales, roll round and round in our wee brains, knocking on our insides hoping for an outlet. As a writer I can transfer all those pieces of my life’s journeys into essays or poems or longer works of nonfiction such as a memoir. But what is a non-writer to do with those same kinds of stories of childhood turmoil, of battlefield memories, of love lost and finally won?

Write it: You might surprise yourself

JT Weaver is a good example of someone who was never a writer until he decided to leave behind a legacy to his children of lessons learned. In an interview with Diana Jackson at A Selection of Recollections he said, “When I was 15, I could barely read and write. I never took a writing course, so I’m largely ignorant of the literary arts, as was my father. When I decided to begin writing, I closed my eyes. In my mind, I built a fire, sat in a comfortable chair, and put on my father’s shoes. Then I told a story just as he had, only my story went to paper. I use the same constructs, the same tempo, and the same relaxed style. The words just flowed with ease. Not his words; my words, but his style, and his wisdom. Sure, this is my story, not his, but I could hear him telling each story as if he were sitting next to me.”

JT’s approach to writing his life stories has merit and is an excellent way for non-writers to approach penning their own – imagine you’re telling the story to someone who has never heard it before such as a future generation, your grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Or sit down with a friend, a cup of coffee and a tape recorder, and then begin the telling.

Hire a Ghostwriter

If you don’t believe you’re capable of writing your own story, hiring a ghostwriter might be your best bet. There are well over a million results in a Google search for ghostwriting services, among them are Gotham Ghostwriters, Ghostwriters Inkand the Association of Ghostwriters. Most ghostwriters don’t receive recognition for their work and many are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. They get paid upfront, so if you hire a ghostwriter, you keep the copyright and the royalties. Another advantage to going this route is that the book might only take half a year to complete. The huge disadvantage is the price, which starts at about $12,000. You know all those celebrity memoirs (and celebrity cookbooks)? Ghostwriters are responsible, and they got paid good bucks, as much as $200,000. Do your research, though. I’m sure there are thousands of individual writers in the world not associated with a ghostwriting service who would work for a more affordable fee.

Collaborate with a Writer:

In some cases, you might be able to find a writer to write your story for you, someone who will trade payment upfront for a share of future royalties. This is the arrangement I have with AJ Jackson, the subject of This New Mountain. As her friend, I offered to write her memoir in exchange for a percentage of the profits. Finding someone to write your memoir without getting paid for their time and talent is a long shot but not impossible. The first place to start would be to contact a writing organization in your area. If your story is compelling enough, you might find someone willing to work with you.

I admit that these three options are limited, but the choice, to me, is obvious – write your own story. You can do it. Even if you’ve never written a thing. Even if you have no idea where to start. Begin with your most vivid memory or the one that had the most impact on shaping your life, and move on from there. Who knows your own story better than you?

Here are a few articles you might find useful:

Writing the Memoir: Disclaimers

thinker2Though a disclaimer is no guarantee against a lawsuit, most authors and publishers of fiction and nonfiction use them in an attempt to cover all bases, to have some claim to a defense just in case they are sued.

Penguin Books uses its own particular disclaimer: “Penguin is committed to publishing works of quality and integrity. In that spirit, we are proud to offer this book to our readers; however, the story, the experiences, and the words are the author’s alone.”

Writers of fiction have it easy. We’ve all read the disclaimer on a novel with some form of, “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” But a disclaimer for a memoir is a different beast. Readers of memoir don’t expect what they read to represent a fictionalized anything – they expect it to represent the truth. And it should.

However, memoirists often face a dilemma when writing “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Others can be hurt, authors can be sued – but what if that particular truth is essential to the telling of one’s story? How much to reveal…the answer to that will determine if names, characteristics, etc. should be changed. Be upfront with the reader and disclose these changes, as I did in AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain:

  • This is a work of creative nonfiction. The events are portrayed to the best of AJ Jackson’s memory. While all the stories in this book are true, some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.

And if an author alters the narrative to make it more readable, those kinds of changes should also be noted in a disclaimer, as in these two examples:

  • Everything here is true, but it may not be entirely factual. In some cases I have compressed events; in others I have made two people into one. I have occasionally embroidered. I learned early that the most important thing in life is a good story. ~ Ruth Reichl, Tender at the Bone
  • For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes. ~ Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Eggers goes on to list in detail the areas that were fictionalized including dialogue, characters and their characteristics, locations and time.)

Another problem a memoirist has to deal with is memory, which tends to be imperfect and fades over time.

Most nonfiction is written from memory and we all know that human memory is deeply flawed. It’s almost impossible to recall a conversation word for word. You might forget minor details, like the color of a dress or the make and model of a car. If you aren’t sure about the details but are determined to include them, be upfront and plan on issuing a disclaimer that clarifies the creative liberties you’ve taken. ~ Melissa Donovan, “Six Guidelines for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Using Dave Eggers’ memoir again as an example, we see how he deals with such flaws in memory when he writes:

  • This is a work of fiction, only in that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people, and exact descriptions of certain things, so had to fill in gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real, are not products of the author’s imagination, because at the time of this writing, the author had no imagination whatsoever for those sorts of things….

Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway handle the issues of memory and retelling of dialogue in their disclaimer for Unsinkable:

  • The conversations in the book all come from the author’s recollections, though they are not written to represent word-for-word transcripts. Rather, the author has retold them in a way that evokes the feeling and meaning what was said and in all instances, the essence of the dialogue is accurate.

On The Book Designer website, Joel Frielander gives examples of disclaimers (for different types of manuscripts) in this post. Here is his suggestion for memoir and autobiography:

  • I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I may have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.

Best-selling author James Frey, who came under fire when his own memoir was found to be partly fictionalized, said this in a Bad IDEA interview: “Memoir is whatever you want it to be, it’s a book based on your life. Obviously I’m not a guy who believes it should be factually perfect, and frankly I don’t think any of them are.”

I can’t help but think if Frey had included an honest disclaimer for his memoir from the beginning, he wouldn’t have faced the wrath of Oprah Winfrey or lost in a lawsuit when the truth did come out. Subsequent issues of his memoir included this:

  • This book is a combination of facts about James Frey’s life and certain embellishments. Names, dates, places, events, and details have been changed, invented, and altered for literary effect. The reader should not consider this book anything other than a work of literature.

If a writer strives to present their life as truthfully as possible and discloses any changes to the truth, a reader can’t ask for more.

What do you think? Are there times when a memoirist has the right to change the truth or should a memoir be nothing but the truth?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: A Compelling Opening

Writing a memoir asks for you to dig deep into your biography and come up with scenes that bring a reader into your world fully and inspire them to keep reading – something about you and your story is relevant to their lives. ~ Linda Joy Myers

Hook1One of the most consistent pieces of advice for fiction writers is to hook a reader immediately – if possible, with the first sentence, or at least in the next few paragraphs. If readers don’t feel pulled into the story within the first two or three pages, they may not continue reading. This is certainly true of an agent or publisher reading through their slush pile.

Memoir is a different genre and its readers don’t expect action-packed openings (which aren’t necessarily recommended for fiction either), but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story.

One argument against an action opening is that the story hasn’t had time to reveal the characters and who they are. There is no such thing as a story without a character, even if the character is a thunderstorm or a beating heart. And conflict is necessary, because character + opposition = story, but if conflict is introduced too early, it could leave the reader wondering, “Why should I care about what’s happening to the characters?”

Jane Friedman (in “The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings”) reveals the importance of including character in the beginning of a story with her list of three things she finds most compelling in a good opening:

  • A character we immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or who meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

According to James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure), there are two more things that the beginning of a novel must do besides (1) hook the reader and compel him to continue farther into the story; (2) establish a bond between the reader and the main character; and (3) introduce the opposition:        

  • Present the story world.
  • Establish the general tone of the story.

Your story world, or setting, will change as the story progresses from scene to scene or moves around in time and place. In the beginning, you should concern yourself with hooking the reader and drawing him in, and not bog down the story with paragraphs of exposition. Your setting could also be its own character or part of the conflict in your story – a parched desert that sucks the life out of you, constant rain that brings heaviness into your life, a bedroom whose tight space feels more like a dungeon than the child’s haven it should be.

It’s also important that your reader trusts you in the journey you’re taking together. You, as the narrator of your memoir, should establish the tone of your story so the reader knows what to expect. Through internal dialogue, word choice, imagery, etc. you will set the mood of your story. The mood will shift, of course, depending on the circumstances the character moves through, but the general tone should be consistent in the way you deal with the story. Will it be a more light-hearted telling, as in My Dog Skip by Willie Morris or the heavier-handed one of The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick?

You are the main character in your memoir. As important as revealing a character is to a novel, it is even more so to a memoir. Bring the reader into your story. Create curiosity and they will follow where you lead them.

Research the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of great novels or memoirs. What are your favorite, most compelling story beginnings?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Point of View

Looking BackA novel can be written in one of several points of view, but a memoir is written exclusively in first person – the “I” viewpoint of the narrator. While this is a great vehicle to draw readers in and bring them close to you and your story, the key to good writing is to take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel.

For memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens itself — or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze. ~ Jane Friedman*

Author and editor Alane Salierno Mason prefers “an eye seeing to an I talking” which is the difference between an “I memoir” and an “eye memoir.” Try describing what you see in a one-dimensional photo of the Grand Canyon, and then do the same after standing on the edge of the real thing. The one can only take you so far, the other can take you anywhere. And the reader with you.

When it is an eye, it is in constant relation to the outside world. This kind of eye sees not only from the narrator’s point of view [or] only from the point of view of the moment; it stands and moves both inside and outside the self. It might even see from the point of view of ancestors, both literal and literary; it might see itself swept along in historical and cultural and political currents and in others even more mysterious. It sees itself swimming in a larger sea than that of the individual. ~ Alane Salierno Mason**

Accomplishing the kind of re-focus necessary for an “eye memoir” requires you to step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. Take us with you across a lonely schoolyard or into a dark woods. Show us a face of joy, let us hear the words that cut you deep. It isn’t, “I cried when my parakeet died,” but, “I turned then, right before the screen door slammed. And I saw – in the insistent beat of his wings, his delicate head thrust forward, eyes intent and focused on mine – his longing to be with me. The door hit with a dull thud, and not the sharpness it should have. And then he was falling, silent and still, to the floor….”

This thoughtful, empathetic, reflective persona is the real heart of memoir, the voice that readers will follow and want to know. The discoveries it makes over the course of the story, the wisdom it uncovers and brings to the tale, even its confusions and uncertainties — these will carry the audience through, well beyond the limits of “me, me, me.” ~ Tracy Seeley***

In filtering every detail through your eyes, your story becomes your truth. And in the end, your memoir is not so much about what happened but about the importance of your journey, about what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

What would be the most difficult part of going back and seeing your life again through the perspective of younger eyes?

*Jane Friedman, “Your No. 1 Challenge If You’re Writing Memoir”

**Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”

***Tracy Seeley, “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger Than Me, Me, Me”

First Steps to Writing a Memoir

Woman with typewriter.We all have stories inside ourselves – and the longer we live, the more we acquire. Our pasts are filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, remarkable adventures, and lessons learned. At some point, most of us think about writing it all down, if only to make sense of our lives and capture important moments from our past before time can snatch them away.

Before starting on the process of recording the past, a few questions should be answered.

Biography or memoir?

A biography is a life story, an account of a person’s life from beginning to end told by someone else. An autobiography is the story of your own life told by you (or dictated to someone else). Your history is a great gift to give to your friends and family.

An individual’s memoir is a biography or autobiography of the important events in that person’s life. It is focused, usually has a theme woven throughout, and tends to be more anecdotal. Memoirs are a good way to explore the “meaning of life” as you’ve experienced it in the context of certain events or within a particular period of time. A person can write multiple memoirs, each covering something different from life experience (but an individual will have only one biography).

As an example, President Obama’s biography/autobiography would chronicle his life from birth through the present, whereas his memoir might focus on his years in the White House.

My publisher tells me that bios and memoirs are the hottest selling books on the market right now. But it’s “who you are” that will be the selling point. So unless you’re a celebrity, making it onto the bestseller list will likely be an unfulfilled dream. That leads me to my next point. 

Overall goal of the memoir?

When I first began working on This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, the reason was to help AJ leave a record for her family of the things she’d done as a private investigator, repossessor, and process server. But after I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures, we both thought the audience of the book could be much wider – reaching beyond her circle of friends and business associates (see my post “Beginnings: The Goal of a Memoir”).

In my case, shifting the goal meant refocusing and strengthening the elements of fiction writing (scenes, dialogue, beginning-middle-end structure, etc) to create a piece of creative nonfiction that would appeal to a larger group of readers. At this point I knew the road to publication would be a long one, but a journey doesn’t start until you take the first step.

Some writers enjoy the process of writing for the sake of writing itself. For them, finishing a poem or larger manuscript – and knowing they have done their best – is an accomplishment that brings its own joy. Writing for yourself or for friends and family are both goals on par with the “loftier” one of publication.

Purpose of the memoir?

If you’ve decided you want to publish your memoir, ask yourself why.

Writing for revenge or betrayal

Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…. Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not.  ~ Marion Roach Smith, “Don’t Write A Memoir to Get Revenge”

Writing a story focused only on pain or as a means of self-help for others

Writing through grief and tragedy is a proven method to heal, but it is not a proven method for getting published. I say this not to be insensitive, but to bring needed attention to the fact that these stories are prevalent, and very few publishing houses are accepting them…. Life experience, or overcoming a personal challenge, is not enough expertise to help others, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. ~ Jane Friedman, “Five Common Flaws in Memoir Projects”

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman writes:

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life… If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead. But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

Deciding on the type of biography you want to write, along with its goal and purpose, are the first steps that lead to the foundation of your memoir, and will drive the course of the entire manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about how to make a memoir more artful and less confessional.

Are you thinking about writing your biography or memoir?

Beginnings: The Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?