Thursday, July 2, 2009

To Write a Memoir (or Publish One)

Every other day, a new proposal or manuscript for a “memoir” hits my desk. The problem arises immediately, especially for some of those I work with who sometimes blurt out: Is this a growing category? Do people read memoirs? And finally, what is a memoir, really?

What follows is a very brief exploration of these questions, in no particular order.

Let go to the basics first: At its essence, a Memoir is a form of autobiographical writing, or a story (or series of stories) from a person’s life. Simple, right? Memoirs may appear less structured or encompassing than formal autobiographical works as they are usually about a phase or episode of a life rather than the chronological telling of a life from childhood to adulthood and old age. Most memoirs are written from the first person point of view. The term "memoir" has actually begun to replace "autobiography" in its popular use in some ways.

So that's a quick summary. But it's funny to me when people wonder about the salability of memoirs, so I want to ask YOU a question. Do you read memoirs? If so, what was the last one you read?

In the past few years I've picked up memoirs by David Sedaris, Anne LaMott, Augusten Burroughs, Donald Miller, and of course, Dave Eggers. Who do you read?

In my exploration of this area of the market, there are TWO forces that increase the appeal of a memoir to the marketplace: Dynamite Writing about a unique stories or set of influences in one's life or upbringing (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers, Traveling Mercies by Anne LaMott, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, or Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs).

The second force that helps a memoir appeal to a broader audience is a Compelling or Known Personality or Life Story (The Measure of a Man, by Sidney Poitier, Dispatches from the Edge, by Anderson Cooper, My Life by Bill Clinton).

And why is the form so popular these days? Well, after trolling through hundreds and thousands of proposals and queries, I see more books written "about my life" than anything else.

We all want to write about ourselves it seems, which is fantastic, so long as your memoir takes people on a journey worth remembering! : )

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Anita said...

Currently reading ALMOST FRENCH (fun, enlightening)...recently read THE GLASS CASTLE (GC is a wonderful book).

I love the look memoirs give me into other lives. Also, I enjoy fiction that feels like memoir--THE RIGHT OF THIRST was like that for me.

Keanan Brand said...

I've read a few memoirs in my time, but the ones I actually finish, or the ones I remember, aren't just straight-down-the-line autobiographies. They usually have unique structures, excellent writing, and compelling stories.

I'm currently editing a short memoir for a writer who is limiting the manuscript to a few of his childhood years lived in a certain area of Arkansas. The chapters revolve around humorous incidents involving himself, his siblings, and various shenanigans that resulted from relying on ingenuity and blithe creativity without much recourse to common sense. The writing's good, and the stories are laugh-out-loud funny, and I think it'll probably sell well.

In a side note: I don't quite know why, but I'm often drawn to films that are based on true stories. There's something about the word "true" that grabs my attention.

Wendy @ All in a Day's Thought said...

Great last line, "so long as it takes people on a journey worth remembering."

You hit upon some of my favorites: LaMott, Donald Miller and McCourt.

Like you mentioned, everyone wants to write about themselves. I believe everyone wants to read about themselves too. So the role of the memoirist is to tell their story in such a way that others can readily relate to and feel involved in the story.

The first page of Blue Like Jazz describes my faith journey so well, but Miller is merely writing his story...
~ Wendy

Alexander Field said...

Anita & Wendy, I think you're both right. A memoir gives us a look into another's life. Wendy, you wrote: "I believe everyone wants to read about themselves too." That's it! A memoir must be relatable; we want to see ourselves in this other person's stories...

Keanan, true stories for me hold the same appeal. And I love that you're editing a book - I could always tell from your blog that you were an editor... : )

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Memoirs... autobiographies... A Moveable Feast is really good, kind of a Hemingway bio. Usually I choose to read about writers or artists. I plan to read Matisse's soon.

Solvang Sherrie said...

I've read and enjoyed all the memoirs you mentioned. I actually saw Annie Lamott at UCSB a few years ago and she was an amazing speaker.

You'll Never Nanny in this Town Again is in my "to be read" pile. Oddly enough, it started out as a self-published memoir then got picked up by Crown.

I love memoirs, as long as the writer's voice keeps me engaged. A Girl Named Zippy, The Year of Living Biblically and Rocket Boys are some other good ones.

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