A few tips on writing and publishing your memoirs.

WRITING YOUR OWN LIFE STORY AND MEMOIRS There are quite a few web sites offering advice on how to write your life story for posterity. Hopefully, my own contribution to the genre will shed some fresh insight into what is involved too.

You may already have some memoir notes, diaries, etc, or you might be just considering making a start on such a project. Either way, consider from the outset just who you are writing for, namely who would you like to see reading your memoirs? The answer is likely to be A/. Yourself alone B/. Just your children and other family members, who may see it while you, are alive or only after your death. C/. Universal publication. A/. If the book is never to see the light of day and you write just for you, quality control doesn’t really matter. The journal or diary is likely to be deeply personal, and written from a desire for nostalgia and catharsis, exploring worries, concerns, and involving a lot of self-analysis.  Some of this should also be added to memoirs in the B & C categories too. The main thing with a private diary is keeping it safe and protected.  If you leave it lying around, someone will open the notes and read them. They may simply be too curious to consider the invasion of privacy issues. If your entries in the log describe friends as fat, or confess to an affair your partner or spouse knew nothing about, you could find the notes being presented as evidence in court proceedings. If its private, keep it under lock and key, and if filed on a computer disc, ensure it is password protected. B/.  A family memento – Here the author has an intended readership, but needs to know when that information is to be released to the readers. If it is only to be found posthumously, leaving instructions as to its location is important. The instructions need to be added to a Will, or the work of a lifetime and about a lifetime can easily end up as landfill.  My grandfather kept a journal, which he showed me when I was younger. I was heartbroken after his death to discover that my Gran, his widow, had thrown it away soon after the funeral. I would have loved to see it again. If there is more than one reader, then multiple copies may be required (unless it is presented as a computer download file).  You can’t really beat a print copy though and some print on demand services, like the Lulu Press make this possible at various prices depending on your needs. Explore the market. If you wish you can get copies published just for yourself and store them where you wish ready to be presented to your readers when you choose. A family memoir often comes with lots of photos and illustrations.  Be sure to gather together any documents you have available, photos, wedding and birth certificates, etc. Be sure to work out the right dates and chronology for the key events in your life.  You’ll be amazed how much you half-forgot and even totally forgot that such documents will help you remember and recover.  Make lists of the people and places that you know and decide whether they get mentioned in your book or not. Be selective. The list is as challenging as one for whom to invite to a wedding or birthday party or not. Even though the memoir is for your children, write it professionally, as if it was aimed to a commercial market. You may find a lot of details from your life you would rather not include, such as (I’m being hypothetical here) some drug taking you did in our youth, a minor arrest for some crime or other, a terminated pregnancy, an affair you had in the early years of your relationship.  If no one ever suspected, just leave the really dark stuff out of the book, but if the family knew of the situation, the memoir might be an opportunity to explain your side of the story and apologize for any hurt caused during events you might have been less proud of. You may want to change some names and locations for events concerning various friends to avoid them being challenged about some of the stories given. Don’t lie or exaggerate your adventures. Don’t claim to have climbed Everest if you only conquered K2.  Unlike a novel, a memoir is usually not written for universal publication, but writes one as if it is. C/. An autobiography written for mainstream publication is the most challenging of all non-fiction works to present, and unless you are already a celebrity, or a witness / participant in headline events, the memoir may not find a publisher. In fact, many celebrity autobiographies are ghost written, often very badly. Most people live fairly ordinary lives. We tend to follow the Solomon Grundy life format. Born, married, have children, get old, get sick, die, and get buried.  Others can only write the last two events about us of course. Too many unpublished and largely un-publishable autobiographies follow the same line of roughly setting life out in a chronological order, so there is the early years, how much the author loved (or occasionally loathed) parents, the first encounter with the school bully, teachers liked and disliked, graduation, (or lack of it), the day Granddad fell in the canal and how much we all laughed, the first dog we had and how sad we were when it died, a few early lovers, meeting the husband or wife, work, etc. Such a by the numbers approach stops the autobiography being too exceptional.  It will be in danger of becoming as predictable as a whodunit with only one suspect. Though meaningful to the author and immediate family, it is likely to read as too familiar to a general readership, for describing what most people live.  The trick is to make the ordinary extraordinary. A big problem with most of our lives is that we don’t have a single beginning, middle and end story, but a series of anecdotes and events that fragment our lives into random vignettes. A strong autobiography tends to be linear, rather than meandering and random.  The key events in your life are those, which could have gone differently. Imagine a time traveller interfering with your past. At what points would things have taken a different course? Those are the points at which your story makes you. A time traveller moving the cornflakes so you have to have porridge for breakfast on a particular Tuesday in 1967 isn’t going to change anything significant. Take a biography of Horatio Nelson as an example here. His early life will be examined by the historian / biographer for clues as to what inspired his love of the sea, and set the mould that turned him into the great admiral of later years.  Now look at your planned or written description of your childhood. Does it show the signs of the engineering career you forged by the time you were forty?  Could your childhood description be swapped with that of another memoir author who went on to become a hat maker? If your story is a set of cards that can be shuffled into other patterns or switched with those in other packs, and other stories, your autobiography will not go to press.  You lived it and it was as great as you see it, but the book is unlikely to grab others the same way. You need exclusive and exceptional cards that are undeniably your experiences and no one else’s. Without them, stick to writing for A or B audiences.  No one, including myself can tell you which cards those will be. It’s your life after all, and your book. My own life story did get into print, with some modest ongoing success. I was caught up in a cult from 1981 to 1985 so I set my life down consciously as a before, during and after picture.  I set out to examine how the cult changed my personality, and how my life was affected by it, and still is affected by it, thirty years on. Events not fitting the structure were discarded as not relevant.   My dislike of peas had no bearing on events, while not liking tea or coffee did. The cult had an unofficial ban on the drinks but the indoctrination wasn’t imposed on me as by chance I was already there. It actually helped weaken their indoctrination over me. It’s important to be selective in writing a published memoir. Don’t throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Also, be honest – include aspects of yourself you are not proud of, and also make friends, family and even enemies into credible characters. Your story isn’t just about you – it is the story of your family, community, and the people around you. Take care not to libel anyone though. If you do go to press, your readers are likely to include the people who you describe in the book.  Change a few names and situations to protect a few reputations if need be and admit to doing this in the book. Telling everyone that your husband / wife / children / Mother / Father etc are the best in the World, and how much you love them over and over is likely to make most readers bored by your text, as true as it may be to you.  It might even work in a work written just for the family, but such syrup certainly won’t work in a commercial publication.  You may well know people who mean well but tend to be boring to you when they produce family photo albums and drone on with the same stories again and again. In your writing, doesn’t be that person. Sending an autobiography for publication takes guts.  Getting a science fiction novel rejected is bad enough if you slaved over it for two years, but in rejecting your life story a publisher is effectively casting as much a judgement on your life’s worth as on your writing – at least in your eyes. In his (or of course in her) reality, he is thinking of how many sales your work will generate, just as he does with the science fiction opus.  If turned down, revise your work, and send it out again, to a new potential publisher, but be sure you have a hook and a way of showing why your life is different (not necessarily better than anyone else’s.  If you can’t break out of the standard Solomon Grundy mode, you won’t get published – period. Writing your life story is fun, cathartic and rewarding, whether it is ever read by anyone else or not. Doing it is easy – get a pen and paper and see where it takes you. You’ll certainly find out a great deal about you that you didn’t know before. You might think you know your story already, but you will be surprised and shocked many times if you do this properly.  The soul searching makes the autobiography as much of an adventure as a voyage to the stars or through Narnia. You might not be the same you when you return. Good luck and happy research.

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  • rgreenfield on Oct 3, 2011

    very good to write your memoir… and thanks for the suggestions!

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