How Excellent Must Your Memoir Be?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fifth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

When I decided to write my memoir, I entered a new chapter of my life. The beginning was easy. I just needed to gather the information and search for anecdotes and timelines. However, from the very beginning, I knew it would be my responsibility to create the illusion that readers were actually participating in the events. To meet that responsibility, I needed to learn many new language arts, such as scene building, sensory description, dialog, and story structure. As I learned, I continued to polish my manuscript, organize it, and incorporate feedback from critiques and edits.

Occasionally I think I’m getting close and I send it out to an editor for feedback. It always comes back with suggestions and concerns. After one recent submission, my editor told me about a weakness in my craft. She said my manuscript would be greatly improved if I developed my dialog with what she calls “beats.” Instead of just “he said,” then “she said,” I need to allow readers to see the characters. It would look something like this.

“blah blah blah,” he said, as he reached for a glass of water.

“blah blah, blah” she said, signaling to the waiter to bring the check.

Her instruction provided a wonderful teaching moment and another important step toward stylistic excellence. I could see what she meant. In the fiction I enjoy reading, the author interweaves all sorts of action into the mix. I now needed to follow her suggestion, and review my manuscript in an attempt to create more compelling scenes.

This project of turning life into a story has given me some of the most creative years of my lifetime. I love pushing my skill to higher levels, forcing me to learn how to create the same effects that I have been enjoying as a reader for years. But I also have mixed feelings about this new round of improvements. The techniques of scene-building require that I remember ever-increasing details from decades earlier. Would the value of my story really be that much greater if I remember the glint of light through a window, or the sound of water dripping from the sink, or a foot tapping nervously?

And another question arises. I have to decide if I really want to spend more months or even years increasing my ability to put talking characters into a room so readers can see the background. I want to present my case to a higher authority. “Isn’t it sufficient just to repeat the conversation?” But I know the higher authority is the reader, and if I can create a story worth reading, I will have succeeded.

Someday, my memoir will be ready and I hope when I finally do publish it, it will offer readers as interesting a journey as possible. Exactly, when I will cross that chasm from a private life to a public one will rely on a complex interplay of esthetic judgment and courage. Until that moment, readers and I will remain on opposite sides of the chasm. At some point, I will have to take the leap.

As the memoir wave continues to grow into a tsunami, and increasing numbers of people are feeling the desire to share their stories, each writer will face this decision. And when I read self-published or small-published memoirs, I am on the receiving end of their sense of timing. Should they have waited longer? Wasn’t it wonderful and sufficient that they had come this far and given me a story about the years of their lives?

For example, when I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe”  by Dawn Novotny, I attempted to learn all sorts of lessons from her life story. And I also attempted to learn from her decision to publish. As a story reader, I notice gaps in language and storytelling skills, issues that would not have survived the editing process of a traditional publisher. As a result, many episodes violate the storyteller’s mandate to “show don’t tell” and would have received all sorts of skill-building suggestions from my editor. If Novotny had waited until she had reached a higher bar, she would not have had the satisfaction of sharing her story, and I would not have had the satisfaction of reading it.

I’m glad she chose to publish it, because her memoir puts things in perspective, and helps me remember the power of the memoir revolution. Everyone now has the option of taking this fascinating journey of writing a memoir, and then actually moving it from the privacy of a manuscript to the public sharing of a book. Novotny has taken the plunge, and realized one of the great benefits of modern times. We are allowing ourselves the freedom to get to know each other, our mistakes, our pain, and our wisdom. When we pass each other on the street, our stories are invisible. In the age of the memoir, we discover that we all are living our stories.

After every memoir workshop I’ve taught, students say, “People are so interesting,” or “I didn’t realize people had such extraordinary experiences.” Dawn Novotny’s memoir shares yet another one of those remarkable stories. It happens to touch on the lives of some of the people we know as household names, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe Dimaggio. But even those famous characters spill over into real life, with its complexity, dreams, faults, and emotional challenges.

The fact that it is not perfect story crafting is only one aspect of the book. It is in fact, a passionate, interesting, and engaging journey through a person’s life. Every memoir teaches me lessons, first about the variety of human experience, and second, about the craft of transforming life into story. Now in the age of self- and small-publishing, I also learn about the courage to step out from the shields of privacy and share our lives with readers.


Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

An agent teaches writers to face their hopes and fears

By Jerry Waxler

The publishing game can be maddening. Not only must you write the best possible book. You must then sell it to a publisher. Many writers feel overwhelmed at this stage asking themselves and each other, “How can I possibly turn into a sales person?” Supposedly, the “solution” is to find a literary agent who will sell it for you. The cruel irony is that you still must learn to sell your book to an agent. I decided to avoid the whole mess by publishing my first books and sell them at my workshops.

However, occasionally I look up to the cathedral in the sky, where happy published writers hang out at tea parties, and I wonder if I will ever gain admission. To learn how to storm those gates, I recently attended an all day workshop on the subject. The event was  hosted at one of the region’s premier writing events, the Philadelphia Stories “Push to Publish” conference, and the speaker was literary agent, Sheree Bykofsky, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Published

At first I intended to be an interested bystander, learning what other people must achieve. The morning of the workshop, I dusted off one of my favorite works in progress, a book about the importance of memoir writing, and on an impulse dashed out a one page query as fast as I could type. Quickly scanning my work, in a surge of self-congratulation, I approved my first draft.

When I arrived at the workshop I put my query on the pile with the other 24 aspiring writers. Our fate was in Sheree’s hands. When she started, she pointed to the pile and said, “I receive 200 of these a day and my job is to throw them out as quickly as possible. I’m just warning you. You are all going to hate me.” I rejected her gloomy prediction. The others might hate her, but I was sure she was going to love my query, and in return I could already feel my blossoming love for her.

She picked the first one up and said, “It’s not formatted correctly. It needs to look like a formal business letter.” She threw it aside and moved on. The next one went into the reject pile because it was right and left justified. “Always format queries ragged-right.”

I congratulated myself. I did those two things correctly. I was still in the running. She picked up the next one and said, “This is double spaced. No good.” She tossed it with the others. This surprised me. I raised my hand. “I thought that the industry standard for submitting to editors is double space.”

“No,” she said. “Not true for queries. They need to be single spaced.”

“Darn,” I thought. “She won’t like my line spacing. But I’m sure she’ll like everything else about it.”

When she started to review mine, she said, “It’s double spaced.” And then, perhaps feeling the positive vibes I was sending her, she kept commenting. “There are capitalization problems.” Finally, she correctly noted, “This looks like you wrote it quickly. Slow down and be sure your query shows off your best work.” Then she tossed it in with the other rejects. The criticism that hurt the most was her complaint about capitalization. How could she throw away my great idea because of typography details. It turned out her prediction was right. I did have to fight with my own feelings of loathing.

Despite her negative feedback, I knew my book had merit, and after the disappointment washed through me, I realized she was teaching a nifty lesson. In a little over a half an hour she had drilled into us how to get past the first round of gate keeping. I simply need to pay careful attention to formatting and other details. With a little extra effort, I could surmount this obstacle.

I learned another, even more important lesson. I had just been rejected by an agent and I was still breathing. It felt like a rite of passage. Instead of feeling defeated, I felt brave. I could do this. So I kept listening and learning about the writer’s relationship with an agent. In addition to general information, she helped me clear up some misconceptions.

Because agents often turn up at writing conferences, I suspected they only do business with people they have met in person. This discouraged me, because I only have the chance to meet a couple of agents a year. When I asked her about it, she said it wasn’t true. She has sold lots of books for authors she has never met.

Another impression that had blocked me from seeking an agent was my fear that I might pick the wrong one. I was behaving like a teenager who refuses to date for fear of entering a relationship with the wrong partner. Like that lonely teenager, I had mythologized the perfect agent as being so godlike, she didn’t exist. After today’s demonstration, I decided agents are human and fallible and that when I am ready to enter into such a relationship, I would be happy to look for a human business partner, rather than holding out for a mythical one.

Finally, she told us not to pay attention to the people who predict the end of the industry. “Publishers need books, and I sell a lot of them.”

At the end of the day, she told us how to craft an elevator speech in which we would describe our book to an agent in one minute. She then gave us fifteen minutes to craft our pitch. Then each of us stood in front of the room and gave our spiel. This was my chance to redeem myself.

This time, instead of nit-picking my formatting, she listened to the substance of my book idea, and apparently she liked what she heard. She praised me, in front of the room, a wonderful feeling that made up for my earlier disappointment. Later, she invited me to send her the book proposal.

Sheree Bykofsky’s class transformed my attitude about the whole category of literary agents from scary gatekeepers into potential allies. I decided that if they insist on letter-perfect formatting in the query letter, it’s a requirement I can live with. Now, instead of seeing the publishing business as an unattainable castle, I began to see it as less threatening and more inviting, with lots of doors, where agents greet people and occasionally help some enter. I decided it’s a little like dating. You try and fail, and try again and fail again, and learn along the way, until eventually you get it right. I’m not in yet, but I’m getting closer. At least now I know what to bring with me when I knock.

Read my article about a creative nonfiction panel at the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish Conference.
What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

Sheree Bykofsky Associates, Literary Agent

List of suggestions for submitting your best work,Submit Manuscripts That Shine

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Stephen Markley Interview Part 5: What do Publishers Want?

by Jerry Waxler

Everyone who tries to write a book discovers that the actual writing is only one leg of a journey. Getting it from your computer into the mind of a reader is a long and daunting task. It helps to attend writing workshops and ask published writers how they did it. Another way to gain insight into the process is to accompany Stephen Markley on his journey to publish his memoir, “Publish This Book.”

“Publish this Book” is Stephen Markley’s first, which doesn’t make him an expert on how to get published. Or does it? After all, he took a crazy concept and somehow managed to convince a publisher to print it and get it bookstores. That puts him considerably ahead of many aspiring authors who would love to follow in his footsteps. So how did he do it? Here’s the conversation I had with Markley.

Amid the humor, your serious ambitions to write

Jerry Waxler: Woven in amidst your effort to grow up is a fairly serious road map of trying to break into life as a writer, including some good insights into the publishing industry and process. I think it ought to become a cult classic for people who want to become published writers. Have writers groups or writer wannabe’s found your book yet?

Stephen Markley: Well, obviously I whole-heartedly agree with the part about becoming a cult classic. But I have heard from some writers who think it should be a step by step guide to finding an agent and publisher. That’s not what I was trying to accomplish. From a writer’s perspective, the book is about the existential dilemma of creative art: do I need someone to pay attention to my writing to bring it validation? How do I decide if my writing is worth something or if I’m kidding myself? What’s the point of creating it if no one reads it?

The book is about writing in the spiritual sense – not the nuts-and-bolts practical matters. I don’t want to teach readers how to write a gangbusters query letter or come up with the most perfect marketable idea. The point was to look at the intellectual resilience and emotional perseverance it takes to reach for such a lofty goal.

I get a lot of satisfaction from all the letters from aspiring writers who found it useful and inspirational while also being cautionary, which incidentally, is exactly what I meant for it to be.

I thought publishers like short books

Jerry: Okay then. So it’s not a guide to publishing, but at the same time, you must get an awful lot of questions about what you did right. For example, I enjoyed every page, but I heard the common wisdom for new authors is to keep it short. So much for common wisdom. Why was yours so long and more importantly why did the publishers go along with this?

Stephen: The book was long because I had a lot to say on a number of topics. If I write forty books over the course of a career, they’ll all be well north of 100,000 words because that’s just the kind of writer I’ve grown into. I’ve seen some reviews that said it was too long, but I’ve had more people tell me that when they got to the end, they had wished there was more. A friend from high school, Luisa (who’s mentioned in it), told me she had to slow down and force herself to only read thirty pages a day because she didn’t want it to be over. That’s a pretty awesome compliment. Even when I gave it to Steven, he said I should cut it by a quarter—until he read it and told me he didn’t have anything other than minor cuts. What I’m saying is that it’s the length it was because that was how it developed.

Like I said in the book, I had a moment of fear when I thought the publisher would want to cut it drastically but that never materialized. I’m perfectly fine with cutting when appropriate but the idea that we all have to write short books because it’s more salable or American attention spans are getting shorter is kind of silly. I think it’s far more important to write the best book you can and then let the reader decide if he or she can stand to read something longer than a stretched-out blog post. If you spend all your time trying to tailor your idea toward what “Publishing” wants or is looking for, you’ll write something considerably less interesting and still face almost exactly the same prospects of getting published.  The Publishing Industry is basically a monolithic lemming, always chasing the previous “next big thing” over cliff after cliff.

Gender Demographics

Jerry: I keep hearing that a huge proportion of all readers are women, and when I teach memoir classes, the ratio is often heavily skewed towards female participants, leading me to believe that women are the dominant force in book publishing decisions. You were successful in a story about a young man, fraught with political incorrectness, potty jokes, and a very male take on sex. So what do you think about the gender of your audience, the numbers of your male and female readers, and the reasons you were able to convince publishers you would have enough readers to make it worth their while.

Stephen: Strangely, young women seem to really like the book anyway. The majority of the e-mails or letters I get are from women in their twenties, possibly because they simply buy more books. On the other hand, I do approach sex frankly, unashamedly, and, I think, truthfully, but I’m not a chauvinist (well, by my mother’s standards maybe but that’s another story).

Even the story about casual sex with the Blonde Republican is more a story about my own failings and personal disappointment than it is about her. Even if a woman couldn’t relate to this, I think it makes hetero male sexuality recognizable. As for guys, well, it should make a lot of sense to anyone who’s been single in their twenties. I’m basically thinking what every twentysomething guy is thinking, which is something along the lines of, “Man, boobs are great, but boy do I miss that girl I fell in love with back in the day.”

Again, as far as publishers go, I was not thinking “Well, is this too much sex for the publishing world or not enough sex?” I was thinking, “I’ll write this book as well as I know how, and it will have to include a story about hooking up with that Blonde Republican even though I’d probably rather forget it.”


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

To read my review of the book, click here.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Publish This Book: The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book by Stephen Markley

by Jerry Waxler

Scanning the memoir shelves at Barnes and Noble, I picked up a book I never heard of called Publish This Book by Stephen Markley. The subtitle tickled my imagination, “The Unbelievable True Story of How I Wrote, Sold and Published This Very Book.” Interesting! I kept reading the cover copy. The author is 24, a surprising age for a memoir writer. I flipped it open to sample the style, and liked what I saw. So I bought it.

Many new memoirs languish on my reading pile for months. Markley’s book, with its promise of irony, suffered no such fate. I began reading it almost immediately. And unlike many other memoirs that I set aside after 10 or 20 pages, “Publish this Book” never stalled out.

I loved the style and sense of humor (I laughed out loud quite a few times), and kept finding fabulous observations about the human condition and the project of writing a memoir. I made it all the way to the end, where there was one more test to go. Would I recommend it to others? Absolutely! I was delighted with the experience, and felt it was a worthwhile read.

Almost four decades ago, I too struggled to make the transition from child to adult, a nerve wracking period filled with confusion and bad choices. Much of my life since then, I have been trying to make sense of the chaos of college during the Vietnam War and the post-college hippie detour. Many years of therapy helped, but my best leap towards understanding came when I turned my life into a story. I find that reading and writing memoirs is the best way to make sense of a life. And even though “Publish this Book” takes place now, in the twenty-first century, it provides fascinating glimpses into the mind of a young man trying to become an adult.

In addition to helping me understand my youth, the book provided a window into today’s world. It’s crazy out there, and instead of Vietnam, there are many other obstacles. “Publish this Book” helps me see this world through younger eyes.

And finally, I imagine college kids themselves would appreciate it. After all, Markley recently emerged from those hallowed halls himself. If I was that age, I would be interested in knowing what to expect. I looked on Amazon to see what other readers thought. Several reviewers liked it as much as I did. The reviews were sort of “positive flames” ranting about how great the book is.

I’ve decided this book ought to be the next Big Thing and the author Stephen Markley ought to become a cult hero, as embedded in our cultural canon as J.D. Salinger or Kurt Vonnegut, who captured the anxiety of being young and trying to grow up. So I had to hurry and interview Markley before he became too famous. It turned out he is as prolific and generous with his interviews as he is with his book. Read my six part interview with Stephen Markley, starting here.


Visit Stephen Markley’s Home Page

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To learn about my 200 page workbook about overcoming psychological blocks to writing, click here.

Too shy to publish your memoir? Try these ten tips to reach towards strangers

by Jerry Waxler

Writing a memoir leads you inward, but to reach towards readers, you must turn in the other direction, exposing private material to strangers. What if they don’t like it? What if they don’t like you? Many memoir writers pull back at this threshold. Without forward momentum, even a small bump can become insurmountable.

Reasons for avoiding the public come in many voices, each one asserting a sense of urgency or even danger. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by these concerns, seek solutions. Remember that writing a memoir is a journey. You don’t need to solve every obstacle before you start. Just solve the ones that stop you.

Here is a list of ten suggestions to help you press past the obstacles. Once you have gained confidence, you will come to see your readers as supporters, and the only pressure you will feel is the desire to fulfill their curiosity and respond to their support.

For ten more tips, see part two of this article.

Screw your courage to the sticking place

Before you reach for readers, you might pull back and ask “Why bother?” If unanswered, this question will bog you down and make even small obstacles seem insurmountable. Counter it by writing a list of all the reasons you want to move forward. By focusing on your reasons, you will gain courage to climb the ramparts and charge into the public.

For example, many memoir writers enjoy the pleasure of self-expression. Finding readers takes that pleasure to the next level. Many want to share a lesson about life, offering inspiring and cautionary tales that can help others. And even from the first workshop or critique group, memoir writes discover that their story connects them with other people.

For more reasons, see this article “Ten Reasons Anyone Should Write a Memoir.”

I am nobody

Many aspiring memoir writers ask, “Why would anyone read about my life?” But they typically ask the question rhetorically, assuming that the correct answer is “nobody.” When you look for real answers, you will find many reasons why someone might want to read about your unique journey. By turning your life into a good story, you will give readers the gift of your presence. Like the other obstacles to writing, this is a good one to set aside in the beginning. Start writing and as your story develops you will gradually improve your understanding of your relationship to your future audience.

Accept stinky first drafts

You may be afraid your writing is “not good enough.” One way to overcome this negative impression of yourself is give yourself permission to write bad first drafts. Ernest Hemingway famously claimed his first drafts were crap. Eventually through editing and learning the craft, your writing will improve. Look at your first drafts as a humiliating step along a noble path.

Collaborate with other aspiring writers

Participate in a supportive writing group. Working with other writers helps overcome shyness by giving incremental exposure to helpful people who are traveling the same path you are.

Censor memories you’re not ready to reveal

If there are things about your life that you’re not sure you ever want to write about, keep your secrets. No one is forcing you to reveal everything. As the project proceeds, you can reevaluate your reticence later.

Call it fiction

If you fear you could never tell your secrets, write them as fiction. Hide something you did in Las Vegas by telling about it as if it happened to someone else in Los Angeles.

Write stories that are roadmaps to your future

If you are unable to imagine your future success as a writer, try writing a story about it. Imagine your first letter of acceptance, or jump even further and write about sitting on the deck of your yacht, typing your next bestseller.

Join Toastmasters

Toastmasters International is an inexpensive non-profit organization with local chapters all over the world, where people come together to help each other overcome their reluctance to speak in public. Even if you don’t intend to become a public speaker, this program will help you break through overwrought feelings of privacy and expand your mind to include more people. And if you ever fantasize about publishing a book, you will no longer be terrified by the interviews and book signings.

Persist along a gentle slope

To publish your first pieces, look for gentle places with easy thresholds. Your very first sharing might be in a memoir group. Later you may decide to publish a blog anonymously. As you become accustomed to these initial entry points, aim slightly higher, such as posting a signed article on an ezine. You will gradually reach higher elevations, without having to climb cliffs or leap across chasms.

Draw inspiration from the persistence of other authors

Every memoir you read has been written by someone who had to go through the same process. They started, learn, revealed themselves, and reached towards gatekeepers and readers. Now that you’ve enjoyed the fruits of their labor, consider emulating them, and passing your life story forward, adding another drop to the sea of culture.

For ten more tips, see part two of this article.

See also: “Afraid to write your memoir? Read this book!”

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

Is memoir a genre? Consider these matched pairs.

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

I first became aware of matching pairs of memoirs after the publicity campaign last year for the memoir “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, whose son Nic was addicted to crystal meth. The dad’s memoir was accompanied by the memoir, “Tweak”, written from Nic Sheff’s point of view, about the nightmarish period of his addiction. The two books created a well-deserved media splash, including the interview I heard on national public radio. I read both books and learned so much, seeing this tragic situation from two different, and yet intimately connected perspectives.

Then, I read a less self-conscious pair of memoirs, Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking” and Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up.” Written decades apart, these memoirs describe the journey of the two comedians from anonymity to fame. Despite their overlapping topics, I felt as curious through the second as I was through the first. The two books complemented each other, giving me deeper insight than either would have done alone.

Recently I read the New York Times bestseller “Color of Water” by James McBride, son of a black Christian father and a white Jewish mother. I found the book informative and uplifting. After I finished, I noticed a similar book near the top of my reading pile, “Black, White, and Jewish,” by Rebecca Walker. Previously, I might have rejected it on the premise that one memoir about mixed-race parents was enough. But now, I was eager to learn more.  “Black, White, and Jewish” turned out to be invigorating, another excellent read, and another window into one of my favorite topics, an individual’s search for identity.

Despite the superficial similarities of the two books, they were massively different. Rebecca was trained in literary arts. James was journalist and jazz musician. Rebecca’s mother was Alice Walker, the famous black author of “The Color Purple.” James’ mother was an anonymous white woman, whose only claim to public attention was that she was usually the only white person in the room. Rebecca spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between posh white communities on the east coast and multi-racial communities in San Francisco. James lived exclusively in black urban areas. The differences go on and on.

Each of the books informed me in ways the other had not. By reading memoirs, comparing them, and adding up my experience, I am increasingly convinced these tales of real life are emerging as a full-fledged genre.

What is a genre?

When a reader picks up any detective novel, the expected formula for the book is that someone dies and then the protagonist sleuths to unmask the killer. Of course, within the formula, the author introduces all manner of variations. The murder could be motivated by power, revenge, or greed. The detective could be a grandmother in town for the holiday, a hard-nosed cop, or a burned out private eye.

At first, it may seem impossible to fit memoirs into a well-defined formula. But despite the infinite variations in people’s lives, memoirs all share certain features, and these shared features appear to define a category. While every memoir stretches the “rules” in some way, they have enough in common that I have put together the features of what looks like a genre to me.

A memoir is a story

A memoir is driven by the power of its story, a formula as old as recorded history. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist feels some need, frustration, or desire. Circumstances force the protagonist on a journey, moving past obstacles by making choices. Eventually, a little older and hopefully wiser, the protagonist reaches some conclusion, and the dramatic tension is relieved.

Inside the protagonist’s perspective

Memoirs place our point of view inside the protagonist’s mind. Seeing the world from a real person’s mind generally feels significantly more nuanced and less predictable than what we expect in fiction.

Looking back with greater wisdom

While the bulk of a memoir takes place within a particular period, the reader knows that the author is writing this book after the experience is complete. This is tricky because we know the author has gained wisdom about this experience, but the story starts before the protagonist knew what was coming. A strong memoir will release information slowly and in its own time, stringing us along and building suspense. As a memoir reader, I enjoy this intriguing relationship between author and protagonist, and am always eager to reach the end to learn what lessons the author has discovered.

Character Arc of the protagonist is a valuable aspect of a memoir

The stories we admire most tend to be the ones that allow the protagonist to grow. For example, they gain insight into their moral responsibilities, or achieve emotional closure that convinces us they will be less likely to repeat their mistakes.


Memory is slippery. Conversations can seldom be remembered word for word even a few hours later, and major events which seem clear in one person’s mind might be remembered differently by a sibling. Memoir writers do their best, and readers expect that the story is told as truthfully as possible through the eyes of a fallible human being.

How will you fit your lifestory into this budding genre?

There is a good chance the main theme of your life has already been covered in someone else’s memoir. There are books about immigration, dysfunctional parents, foster kids, searching for spirituality in an ashram, coming under fire in Vietnam, losing a loved one, or any of dozens of themes that have been written elsewhere.

And yet, despite the similarities between your story and ones that have already been written, yours will be different because this one is about you. It’s written in your voice, through your perspective, with the particular characters in your life, and the beliefs that sustained you or pulled you astray. All the things that make your life unique will make your memoir unique. By telling your own story, and then publishing it so others can read it, you take your place on the shelf amidst the rest of the authentic life story literature of the twenty-first century.

One of the first memoirs I reviewed for my blog was about the search for identity by another young man with mixed race parents, “Dreams of Our Fathers” by Barack Obama.

Essay about James McBride’s search for identity in “Color of Water”
An essay about Joan Rivers’ tenacity in “Enter Talking”

Essay about Steve Martin’s fame in “Born Standing Up”

Essay about two memoirs by an addicted son and his father, click here.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

To reach readers, learn from writers

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

It takes skill and courage to write a memoir, and then like trees falling in the forest, our intimate stories thunder silently on the page, until someone reads them. Persuading others to read what we’ve written seems daunting and foreign, unrelated to the central project. And so when writers get together, in addition to discussing their craft, they also ponder the challenges of reaching readers.

Take for example the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I recently attended their annual meeting, along with about 150 of my fellow writers and aspiring writers. The first session in the conference was a panel of four literary agents who had trekked down from the New York area. Agents often turn up at writing conferences, like scouts looking for the latest talent, which is one of the reasons aspiring writers attend such events. Once you convince an agent your book is worthy, they take it around to publishers and try to sell it. When the publisher bites, the book lands in bookstores where lots of readers buy it and everyone wins.

As a volunteer at the conference, I moderated the panel, took questions from the audience and asked some of my own. There were not many surprises, and in the end, the information from such panels can be found in magazine articles on the subject. “Write well.” “Increase your credentials, so publishers and readers trust you.” And by the way, beware of agents who ask you for money. The industry standard is that they make money only after the sale. Each year, I study the agents for some clue as to what makes them tick, and each year I become more aware of their human side. Agents are people. They want to be treated with respect, and since they are going to represent you, they want to believe in you and your work. Ultimately, the agent becomes an emissary and ally.

At most conferences, writers have an opportunity to briefly interview an agent, a compact 10 minutes in which to reach towards fame. My meeting was with Stephany Evans, the president of the FinePrint Literary Management agency. She reiterated the familiar point that in addition to good writing, publishers expect writers to come equipped with an audience. It sounds crazy, and yet, when Stephanie explained it with a warm regard, accompanied by specific information and advice, she transformed the news from a death blow to a challenge. When I tap into the human aspect of the publishing business, I find it all rather exciting.

Another insight into the business end of writing came from keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry, author of award winning supernatural thriller “Ghost Road Blues.” The title of Maberry’s keynote speech was “I can write that.” Jonathan explained that throughout his 30-year writing career, when deciding what to write, he let the almighty paycheck be his guide. If they were willing to pay for it, he was willing to write it. This sounds incredibly materialistic, and yet once the paycheck is in hand, Maberry shifts his focus to creativity, pouring himself towards his audience with the passion of a performer.

If you think looking for a paycheck makes a statement about Maberry’s selfishness quotient, consider this. When he mentioned that he had written or sold something like eight books in the last couple of years, someone asked Maberry how he explains his tireless energy. “A few years ago, my career was on the rocks, and my wife, Sara, enrolled me in a writing class, not to further my writing, but to connect me with other writers. It worked. Once I began hanging around with writers, my career took off. You all are the reason I have succeeded.” His expansive gesture towards the audience filled me with a sense of connection with him, with the writing project, and with my fellow writers.

Someone else asked him how he handles the feeling of jealousy when he meets someone more successful than himself. He said, “I never see writing as competitive. The more you succeed, the more I succeed. If it turns out there are a whole row full of bio-terrorism thrillers on the shelf next to mine, that’s not my competition. That actually helps me sell more books.” Jonathan is always a great listen, in a larger audience, as well as in workshops and in one on one coaching sessions. And as the winner of the most prestigious award in genre writing, the Bram Stoker award, he is an acclaimed writer as well.

Every time I attend a writing conference, like Maberry, I too feel lifted and recharged, which is why I am currently on the board of two writers conferences. And I’ve even tried starting a few groups of my own. And at each meeting, while I am learning craft from other writers, and feeling the camaraderie of their company, I am also letting people like Jonathan Maberry and Stephany Evans, remind me that if I want to find lots of readers I have to learn how to reach out to them.

For more information about hundreds of writing conferences, check out Shaw Guides.

The other regional writing conference where I volunteer as a board member is the Philadelphia Writers Conference. Their 2008 meeting is June 6-8.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Why memoirs are becoming so popular

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Carol O’Dell has never been in headlines. She was an ordinary woman raising a family when her mom’s mind started failing. When O’Dell asked her mother to move in, their relationship became laced with the humiliation and confusion of dementia, madness in the midst of normalcy. It’s a story worth knowing for millions of people in the sandwich generation. To learn more about it, read her memoir called Mothering Mother. And there’s another lesson you can learn from O’Dell’s book. If you think your own life is not famous enough to be worth reading, take another look at what is happening to the memoir genre. You don’t have to be spectacular. You just need to be you, and find the story in your experience.

For proof that people want to know about each other, stand in the checkout line at your local supermarket, look around at the ordinary people. You could reach out and touch them, if you wanted to get smacked, and yet you know absolutely nothing about them and they know nothing about you. Most of us prefer it that way, trying to blend in so we won’t stand out. Then, turn around, to see, also within reach, the tabloid racks, covered with photos of celebrities entering or leaving rehab, getting married and getting divorced. An entire industry brings their private lives into the supermarket, a testimony to the fact that people are curious about other people.

But why should we want to know so much about these particular people who have thrust themselves into the public eye?? All we learn from them is the artificially self-indulgent world of celebrity. Sometimes it’s fun but most of the time it’s plain sordid. I think we’re getting tired of limiting our curiosity to movie stars. I know I am. There is a whole world of people, and I want to learn who they are, what makes them work, how they feel, how they grow.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my desire to know about ordinary people. Look at the popularity of blogs, through which people share snips of our lives, pictures of our kids and pets, and what we did last night. Millions of people are reading this stuff. Memoirs are the next wave in this curiosity about each other. Memoirs let us go deeper, sharing what it was like to grow up, or to take care of someone in need, or to suffer a loss, or fight in a war. We can learn so much about each other through memoirs. It’s an exciting expansion of our ability to know the world.

Most of us only know the private lives of a few people; the ones in our family, and perhaps one or two close friends. Everyone else we see only in the fragments we come across in life situations or tales we share in conversations. As a therapist I hear more, but even in this environment memories arise in disjointed fragments, spread out over time, and not delivered in sequence. If any of them wanted me to really know about their lives, the best way would be to write their memoir.

It turns out that a memoir is by far the best way to find out what it’s like to be someone else. For example, Brooke Shield’s memoir Down Came the Rain, informed me about postpartum depression. Alice Sebold in Lucky informed me of the problems of coping with the aftermath of rape, an unmentionable topic if ever there was one. Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam takes me inside the experience of expecting and then raising a baby with Down Syndrome. William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness brings me face to face with the gore of war, of being shot at and watching friends die in front of you.

None of these topics are pleasant, and so, they don’t come up in polite conversation. And that’s precisely the reason I don’t know much about them. People don’t talk about these things, so how can I ever learn them? In fact, these topics are so unmentionable, people in these situations often feel isolated. But in memoirs, we can be frank. Writers record thoughts in private, and readers, also in private, enter the writer’s experience and learn what it’s like. If the information becomes too intense, they can take a break. No one has to react, offer platitudes, or hide their discomfort.

The insights from memoirs take me far beyond my experience, and far beyond my comfort zone. I would never have asked George Brummell what it was like to grow up black in the segregated south, starting to come of age in Korea, and then after being injured in Vietnam, starting over again, now blind. But I can read about it in his book Shades of Darkness. I wouldn’t know what it was like to be beaten by a stepfather, or to feel the other heartaches of a broken family the way I could by reading Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life. And while I might imagine what it was like for a daughter to take care of a mom with Alzheimer’s I would never have been able to see it so intimately as by reading Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother.

One of the powers of any good book is to invite the reader into a different world. Sometimes it’s sheer escape from our everyday life. But while we’re out of our world, what are we learning? I went through a decade when I was only reading murder mysteries. The battle between good and evil put me into a wonderful hypnotic state. But after years of escaping into the same type of world over and over, I was getting bored. Now that I’m reading memoirs, I not only get out of my own world. I also have a wonderful opportunity to enter other people’s worlds. By reading their lives, I understand a lot more about the people around me. One person’s story at a time, I’m finding that ordinary people at the checkout counter are much more interesting, varied, and offer many more lessons than the menagerie of celebrities facing me on the covers of tabloids.


For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

Publish! How to share your memoir with readers

by Jerry Waxler

Once you’ve written your memoir, will it languish in a drawer, waiting for the day when your heirs will find it? I doubt that plan will inspire you. I have always thought it morbid to worry too much about what will happen to my remains after I’m gone. I want to share my writing now. And there are so many options that can provide that satisfaction.

Writing feels like a very private act, just between your thoughts and the paper, while publishing by definition exposes you, connects you, lets others in. But it turns out writing and publishing are more connected than they first appear. This entire system of words was developed by humans to communicate with each other. Paper is simply a clever repository, where words wait until it is time to fulfill their potential. Here is a summary of the ways that writers move these words from paper to a reader’s mind.

Traditional commercial publishing
Commercial publishing is a business, and like any business, you must learn the ropes, make contacts, find what the market wants and is willing to pay for, and then make a deal. You’ll have to learn how to write queries to gain their attention, and you’ll have to prove to them that there are lots of people who admire you enough to buy your book. If you don’t prove you have lots of such people, most publishers will pass you by. All of these requirements are doable, but they take you far beyond your initial goal of sitting alone and writing.

You can bypass the commercial publishers and publish it yourself. This means no begging. You have complete control. And with control comes responsibility. No matter how good a writer you are, it’s worthwhile to hire a professional editor to fix typos and grammar indiscretions as well as to streamline clumsy sentences. And you’ll need to design the cover and format the book. It’s all up to you. But when you’re done, you’ll have published a real book that you can sell at lectures, give to family members, and market to the public.

Self-publishing technology 1 – Print on Demand
When you have a completed work, you can get it set up as a print-on-demand book through any one of dozens of such companies. They only print what you sell. There are no boxes of books in your basement.

Self-publishing technology 2 – Short run printing
Once you get your book ready for a publisher, you can have it printed in a short run, of 50 or 100 at a time, more economically than you might expect.

Blogs and websites
To get your life into the public, blogs make it as easy as writing in a diary. You might start out just for you, and as you find your voice, you might hook up with others of like minded interest or experience.

Writing groups, critique groups, memoir groups
Writing groups are a wonderful way to share creative time with a few other people, telling stories about writing, swapping tips, critiquing each other’s work. Because you share so much of yourself, these connections can turn into lifelong friendships.

Special interest groups
If your story appeals to special interest groups, like veterans, or an ethnic, religious, or professional group, your book will make a wonderful talking point to earn you invitations to meetings and to become an expert in your community.

Repurpose your material for magazine and other writing
You can keep going, using the material you researched for your memoir as raw material for non-fiction articles as well as for more storytelling and fiction.