Bookstores provide valuable information for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

According to successful author, Jonathan Maberry, from whom I have taken many writing courses, “despite the power of online marketing, bookstores still provide vital information to any writer who wants to get their work into print. By exploring bookstores, you can find what’s hot and get ideas for your own work.” Last year, to learn more about memoirs, I followed his advice and went to the bookstore.

I was disappointed to see books written by people about themselves muddled together with books written by historians or celebrity watchers. The Biography and Memoir section contained mainly books about kings, presidents, generals, and movie stars, interspersed with some blockbuster memoirs like Tobias Wolff’s “This Boys Life” and Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” I had little interest in Biographies at the time, and found it clumsy to pick through the shelves to find the few memoirs.

However, since that first visit, memoirs have gained considerable respect from booksellers. Every time I go to the store, there are one or two fewer biographies, and one or two more memoirs. In fact, it’s now closer to an even mix, and memoirs have even pulled out in front with a table in the aisle devoted to the latest offerings.

For example, this week I picked up “A Three Dog Life,” by Abigail Thomas, about a woman’s relationship to a husband who has lost his mind in a car crash. Being with him is similar to living with someone who has the cognitive deficits of Alzheimer’s. But unlike Alzheimer’s, his tragedy happened in an instant, shifting her role overnight from a loving partner to fulltime caregiver. It’s a human tragedy both frightening and compelling, and the book offers me exactly what I seek from memoirs: an opportunity to emotionally share a life outside my personal experience.

I was helped in my purchasing decision by a testimonial on the front cover from none other than the king of the bookstores, Stephen King himself, who called it “the best memoir I have ever read.” His recommendation pushed me to the next step and I opened the book to check out the writing. I found it to be haunting and compelling. So I paid for it.

If you want to write for the public, try this as an exercise. When you walk into a book store, take advantage of that out-of-body training you received in astral-projection school. Float up a few feet and watch yourself scanning the shelves. Which ones catch your eye? Why did you reach out and pick one up? Which part of the cover copy gets you to read further or put it back? Use these observations to imagine the way you would present your own story. If you can see yourself picking up your own book and wanting to know more, your observations provide valuable information about how to achieve success.

After browsing the memoir and biography section, I strolled over to the books about writing. (I’ve never understood why they call this section “Reference” but that’s often the way it is.) There I scored another hit. Unlike last year, when the books about writing a memoir were skimpy (I recall seeing only one), this time I saw a half a dozen, another indication that this trend in publishing continues to grow. While browsing, I stumbled across an interesting looking book called “How to do Biography,” by Nigel Hamilton. This turns out to be a wonderful find. (“Luck favors the industrious,” or something like that.)

While I’ve been annoyed with all those biographies on the “Memoir and Biography” shelf, I’ve recently become more interested in learning what those authors can teach me. They must have an enormous amount of information about how to turn a life into a story. Of course, since biographies are written by someone else, they don’t have the same introspective slant. And since the genre often tends more towards historical facts than towards story telling, there are other differences. But surely there are many areas of overlap.

To help me understand this process, I’ve joined the Association of Personal Historians, an organization whose charter is to help other people tell their story. Personal historians, by helping someone write their memoir, live somewhere in the middle between the two genres. Joining the organization will give me access to their shared expertise. And it looks like this book “How to Do Biography” is going to offer an overview of the whole subject. From the first few chapters which I have already devoured, it appears to be accessible, and informative, offering history and insights into the whole project of life-into-story, including chapters on autobiography and memoir.

Finally, I browsed the magazine rack, and to my surprise scored again. There was a magazine in the literary section with the peculiarly punctuated title of “Memoir, (and).” This is a journal devoted to memoir writing, including poetry, photography, essays, and so on. This was proof that the trend towards memoirs continues to grow, and the resources and outlets are richer than ever. Hopefully my purchases will help keep my local bricks and mortar bookstore open, so I can go and actually touch books, open them, and see which ones I like.