Lessons for memoir writers from my first year of blogging

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.)

One of the speakers at last year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference was veteran news reporter Daniel Rubin. Fewer people are reading newspapers these days, so Rubin’s bosses at the Philadelphia Inquirer went looking for readers online. They asked him to write a blog. This experiment in new journalism achieved two goals. First, inquirer.typepad.com let the Inquirer participate in what turned out to be a robust stream of Philadelphia blogs. And secondly, it changed Rubin’s writing style. Like any newspaper reporter, Rubin had been taught to leave himself out. As a blogger, he had to put himself in. His two year stint transformed him from a silent observer to an engaged one.

Newspaper reporters aren’t the only ones trained to keep themselves out of their writing. My high school English teachers taught me never to write the word “I.” And for many years, I earned my living writing technical manuals that sound as if the author doesn’t exist. When I wanted to tell my own story, I couldn’t figure out how to write in a livelier, more personal style. Then I discovered blogs. Blog audiences expect to know the writer, personally. To fulfill that expectation, I’ve learned to insert opinions, observations, and anecdotes.

Blogs give everyone in the world the opportunity to share themselves. Some bloggers include pictures of their kids or their garden or the view from the window of their vacation home. While many of these online scrapbooks are frivolous, others offer serious memoir information, tips, and insights. People who sell services also use blogs to create a personal connection. It’s the modern equivalent of the corner store, when people actually knew the family from whom they were buying.

Experiment to find the best blog topic and material
A blog gives you the opportunity to experiment with your material, and since blogs are free, you can start as many as you like. After several attempts, I decided to write a blog about memoirs. I speculated that book reviews and interviews with memoir writers would keep it interesting for readers, and informative and engaging for me as well.

When I started I didn’t know how any of this would actually work out. Would I be able to generate fresh material? Would my vision stay focused enough to entertain and inform readers? Would it become repetitive or trite? Now for the past year, every month, I’m previewing 15 books, finishing five, and posting essays about several. I’ve done interviews with memoir writers, and have networked with a number of bloggers and other internet denizens. I have figured out how to keep the material fresh for me and hopefully my readers. It was only through the test of time that I could learn these lessons, and the knowledge I gained by doing it empowers me to do more.

You can accumulate more than a writing style
If you are reading this article because you want to gather material for a memoir, then you are already looking for a way to bring your own life experience out into the open. A blog is a perfect place to explore and experiment. Gather snips of experience, whether from years ago, or from yesterday, and see how it works. This can be intimidating, at first, for a variety of reasons, one of the most common of which is “why would anyone want to read this stuff.” That’s a great question, and perhaps the ultimate question, but here’s the twist. Instead of using the question as a doubt that drags you down, use it as fuel that drives you forward. Really, honestly ask, “Why would anyone read this stuff?” and as you passionately search for the answer you will gradually transform your writing from material that only interests you to material that will interest others.

Writing a blog means taking the story you find inside yourself and placing it out in the open, where anyone can examine it. Putting it out there is half the job. The other half is to figure out if it makes sense to anyone. That’s what makes blogs so powerful. They generate a low volume conversation with those visitors who want to let you know what they think. It’s a little like stand-up comedians, who find out if their jokes are funny by listening for laughter. As a blogger you find out if your posts make sense by reading the comments. By paying attention to this feedback, you can tweak your writing in a direction that works for this group of people, who like any focus group represent a larger audience.

These readers become part of your micro-community
After blogging for a while, I occasionally hear from repeat visitors. This means that through my writing, I’ve tapped into a micro-community of like minded people. By blogging within a particular focus, my blog has become a sort of forum where people interested in this topic can stay connected.

Many of my readers share similar desires to mine. They want to develop community, find their voice, organize their material, and become accustomed to reaching towards the public. These shared desires bond us across space and time. We become both an audience and a community. So if you are wondering how to hook up with readers and writers, and develop your writing skills in the process, then jump into the blogosphere. Tell your story, and offer feedback about the ones you find.

Note: This year’s Philadelphia Writers Conference will take place June 6, 7, 8, 2008. See this link for details.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

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.