Friday, October 08, 2010
Spilling your life for all to see
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?