Penning Your Life Story: The Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Memoirs and Autobiographies

Our own life narrative is a book that supposedly lives within each of us. The most frequent reason people begin writing is the impulse to capture that tale on paper. All across the world, adult literacy programs and elder centers provide “creating your own life” classes. At every writer’s conference, memoir is the most read genre.

The unfortunate fact is that memoirs are the toughest to write properly, yet the least desirable to get published.

When she encounters a memoirist at a writer’s conference, agent Kristin Nelson once said in a blog post that she cringes because she has read so many terrible memoirs. “Don’t write anything autobiographical unless you’re one of the Rolling Stones,” the author J. A. Konrath said. “Every editor and agency I know HATES memoir proposals,” said Miss Snark. “I’d rather trim the cat’s fur.”

The best-selling rankings, however, are dominated by memoirs like Eat, Pray, Love, In the Garden of Beasts, and Townie: a Memoir.

There is a tremendous audience for sharing real-life experiences in this era of “reality” TV. Look at how angry readers were with authors like James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, who misrepresented fiction as a memoir, to see how eager readers are for genuine tales. So continue to work on your unfinished masterpiece. But practice your trade; follow certain fundamental dos and don’ts, and strive for outstanding wordsmithing and/or stand-up-worthy comic skills:

Read more memoirs.

It’s a good idea to read some presently trending memoirs before you put pen to paper. See what functions well and what doesn’t. Understand the market and the genre.

Tell a compelling tale.

A novel-length memoir is read and sold in book form. It requires the narrative force of a book. That implies conflict and tension, as well as a single major plot arc that directs the action. Most autobiographies fall flat because they lack direction. Pick a straightforward plot, such as “Orphan children salvage the family farm during the Depression” or “A cross-dressing adolescent survives high school in the 1950s.”

Contrast memoir writing with psychotherapy.

Although the act of writing a book on a painful personal experience may be therapeutic for the author, there is a good reason why shrinks demand high fees for their time. Place the unfinished drafts in a journal to be used for fiction, poetry, and personal essays in the future. DO keep in mind that, like a writer, a memoirist is primarily an entertainer.

Despite the fact that memoirs are nonfiction, they nonetheless demand creative writing abilities. Consider your reader at all times. Never make up information; always provide that which is original, fascinating, and pertinent to your overall story.

Don’t anticipate a large readership for medical journals.

If you or a loved one suffers from a severe illness, writing down your experiences may be very helpful to those going through similar struggles. Not that much to the average public. You could discover that online forums, blogs, and publications are the greatest ways to connect with your audience. (See #6) No matter how tragic your narrative is, keep in mind that if it’s not interesting to read, it won’t find an audience. Publishing is a business.

Think about using media other than books to communicate your narrative.

Beginning authors often make the error of diving right into a book-length project. Starting with brief works, or what a writer friend refers to as “memoir essays,” – the kind I have written – is wiser and simpler. Tales of life in the past may be found in nostalgia and senior-focused periodicals and websites. Some specialized publications and websites that concentrate on interests like pets, disabilities, veterans, etc., even have a paying audience. You won’t have to work for years before finding an audience, and they will also provide you some fantastic publication credentials.

This is one situation when BLOGGING may provide you a great forum. Tony Piazza, a mystery novelist and film industry veteran with a new site I like, offers fascinating anecdotes about every Hollywood celebrity you’ve ever heard of.

Don’t go into exhaustive detail.

It doesn’t make for an excellent narrative to include every little detail and every character just because “it’s what actually occurred.” Even if something is factual, it doesn’t always make it entertaining. Unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, or someone stole the parson’s clothes, your blissful recollections of that picture-perfect Sunday school picnic in a long-gone small-town America will render your reader unconscious.

Keep the tale to a specific, noteworthy aspect of your encounter.

Make the subject of your book if you helped crack the Enigma code, dated Elvis, or gave birth in the dirt at Woodstock. I once met a musician who collaborated with some of the greatest American music giants. He wrote a compelling book about those jazzy times, but since it was hidden in his “happily ever after” life tale, he was never able to find a publisher.

Delay starting the publication procedure.

Develop your writing abilities first. You need to develop as a writer before you can expect anyone outside of your family to read your work, unless you’re only writing for your grandkids (in which case there’s nothing wrong with it – but be upfront about your ambitions). Even the most talented editor can’t make a collection of memories into a coherent story.

Consider local and small publishers.

A local publisher with outlets at tourist destinations and historical monuments could be actively hunting for tales about the long-gone ranch life of old California, whereas a national publisher might not be. Another benefit is that you can contact most local publishers without an agency. The book Branches on the Conejo, Leaving the Soil after Five Generations by Anne Schroeder, is a superb illustration of a memoir that was accepted by a local publication. (An additional benefit of working with a small regional publisher is that the book may remain in print even ten years later.)

Don’t lose heart.

Award-winning poet Ann Carbine Best was aware that she had a narrative to relate to which would benefit many other women who had experienced similar things. Sadly, most publishers believed her topic was too specialized and contentious to be a bestseller. But with a tiny publisher, she was able to reach a sympathetic audience for her book of a failed marriage, In the Mirror.

If you’re writing a memoir, hone your creative writing abilities, keep in mind that publishing is a business, and keep the reader in mind. This will help you avoid the cringe-inducing amateurism that readers, agents, and editors detest.

About the AuthorJenny Zimmer is a renowned writer, illustrator, and bookworm. After retiring from her executive job, she now spends her time doing the things she enjoys, which include writing and other pursuits that inspire her imagination and ease her soul. She is kind and empathetic, but she also has a sense of humor, which is shown often in her short works like A Carpet of Violets and Clover. “All The Moments Are Real,” which she previously published, is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.