Friday, October 08, 2010

Spilling your life for all to see

These days, people have this yearning to record their lives on paper. Quite commendable. I have a neighor who's been penning his daily life for 25 years, and he's a remarkable character, in my opinion. His family will appreciate those yarns and experiences. But he'll be the first to tell you, he's no writer. Just last night he asked me how he could find someone to transcript his handwritten notes into a manuscript form, so his grandson and future wife wouldn't read his journal and be embarrassed at his scratchings and misspelled words. He writes for those he holds dear.

Memoirs have become the new writing temptation. People who've never written suddenly decide to pen their lives. The world could benefit from some of these, in my opinion. But many think they have the talent to write simply because they decide they have a story. They think that the world needs to learn from their mistakes, mishaps and revelations. But they underestimate the talent required to pen a book-length piece of work.

When we are enlightened and grow, when we have turned our lives around or encountered miracles, we think that others need that lesson. Writing seems the best channel, so everyone writes a memoir, hoping to see it in Barnes and Noble. But lessons are hard to teach. Just ask our parents.

Just like you experienced lessons, so has everyone else. If we all reduced them to books, we'd be swamped with books nobody reads. Remember, these are times when self-publishing is easy, when everyone feels he has a book in him, and only one in four read a book from cover to cover each year. A lot of books don't get read.

I'm not saying don't write your memoir. I once took two years writing one, based upon a horrible time in my life. A published author told me it left something to be desired, not exciting enough.

How the heck could that be, I thought. Those years almost did me in! Problem was, fiction tends to be more appealing, with more twists and turns. And face it, people read books for entertainment - first and foremost. So I took the story, added characters, changed the setting, and embellished the crap out of it. Soon it evolved into a whole new world, and my mystery series was born. Other than the opening chapter, the rest of the book is made up.

No, I'm not saying to turn your memoirs into fiction. Many write memoirs in chronological order, often entailing entire lifespans. That's a journal. Your memoir has to read like fiction, capitalizing on a particular story in a life. It needs all the characteristics of a novel:

-beginning, middle and end
-hooks and cliffhangers
-flowing prose without the passive voice
-showing not telling
-a serious ability to turn a phrase

Recording events is cathartic, and I originally wrote my story to exorcise demons from my head. Those years consumed me, did irreparable damage, upset me and those around me. Surely others would want to know about such adventure and calamity, and appreciate their lives more.

When my time of crisis was reduced to a simple, "not good enough," I stopped and rethought my effort. Everyone has a crisis at some time in his or her life. What made mine better or worse than another? An editor once told me to ask myself this question when I wrote a page of anything . . . "who cares?" Wow, a good reminder when our fingers get carried away on the computer keys.

Memoirs are marvelous, and I wish more of my family had written them for posterity. But publishing a memoir for the general reading public is another issue altogether. If it doesn't read like a bestselling novel or a literary jewel, it needs to remain in the family. Why do you think celebrities hire ghostwriters? Surely you don't think they write their own stories?

Almost everyone has tried his hand at a memoir. They are remarkably difficult. At writing conferences, agents often ask, "who's writing a memoir?" Half the room raises its hand. I've heard agents tell listeners that many agents aren't interested in memoirs, because so many of them are ill-written. Agents can be quite the reality check.

If you are serious about your memoir, do this first . . . develop your writing skills.

The last thing you want to do is prematurely publish and ultimately botch your precious story. Give it the attention it deserves. If you wish this story to remain timeless, or at least stick around for a couple of generations, become a serious writer first. Once you've found your voice and become a true storyteller, then attempt to write your life's moment.

Have you tried writing your memoir? Did I step on your toes here, or do you agree?


Patrinas Pencil said...

no hurt toes here - but then I'm not writing my memoir. But I do journal and I journal for my children and grandchildren and whomever might come behind them :) I agree in part. As you said, everyone writes for a reason - Mine is just to share my faith walk for those that come behind me.

I write long hand - on purpose. They'll have a very difficult time reading some of it - but it won't be impossible. Mom has been gone for 8 years now, and when I find a piece of something - even a scribbled list - with her handwriting ...It becomes a precious treasure. We'll never know what will mean the most to those that come behind us. Everyone's different. So I'll just concentrate on what matters most to me, and hope that it matters to them when I'm gone. I'll continue to scribble long hand and preserve my unique handwriting - scribbles and all. (scribbles only because my not so young fingers struggle to record the flowing passion from my spirit :)

God bless you Hope

Patrina <")>><
princess warrior

Fiona said...

Wonderful post and no hurt toes here.

I am very fortunate to have a memoir penned by my great, great grandfather. He was quite a renowned preacher in his day and so a series of his sermons was published in a book, along with a brief life story.

My mother and my father in law are both writing their memoirs on their computers but neither intends to publish them. Instead, they are writing them as a means of passing the stories on to the next generation, but they both know that many of those stories will not have any meaning to a larger audience.

I see posts on craigslist all the time from people looking for ghostwriters to write their story because "Everyone tells me I should write a book about my life." Maybe, but remember that they probably find your stories interesting because they know you. Would they hold the same meaning to a complete stranger?

Lynne Howe said...

Hello, Hope ~
Nope, no stepped on toes here, either. But I confess to a chuckle when I read your editor's suggestion at the end of each page to ask "So who cares?"! GOOD piece of advice! And that said, I would ask: at what point does it cease being an exercise in sharing wisdom gained and become narcissistic? Many thanks again for YOUR shared wisdom -- appreciate it, and you, very much!

Margaret Telsch-Williams said...

I think memoirs (and any other writing for that matter) need to have those key elements of caring about the reader more than yourself. Writing a journal, if you intend for others to read it, needs to be more than just about you and your life so a reader can be able to relate to it. I think a lot of people who dabble in writing but want to amazingly make it big through an act of God or something aren't considering readers at all.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

I'll leave memoir writing to others. Perhaps the "democracy of self-publishing" has lured many of those who kept journals for their own enjoyment and/or to leave behind for their kids into the idea that just maybe they can make a million bucks with their life story.

That's a shame, especially if the journal begins sort of like a pure oral history interview, but then gets turned into something that's "cleaned up" for publication. Writing to be read really changes what one says. One can no longer trust it to be quite as true as a window into the individual's feelings or a slice of his/her life and times.


Hope Clark said...


A great point. The gentleman I mentioned in the blog is now hiring someone to help him "clean up" his journal before he prints it for his family. That saddens me. I'd want to see the man's handwriting and read the words exactly as they were originally penned. It's character.


Debra Stang said...

I've never attempted to write a memoir, but when I first got my social work license, I spent four years working the 4:00 PM to Midnight shift in a Level I trauma center/inner city emergency room. I've always thought it would be interesting to go back and write about those days since they helped shape who I became as a professional.