Once upon a time, fiction ruled the market. Today, however, nonfiction is just as heavily competitive – and memoir is a key corner of that genre.
Consider some famous best-selling memoirs from the recent past: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and, most recently, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. As three-time memoirist Mary Karr recounts in The Art of Memoir: “Memoir as a genre has entered its heyday, with a massive surge in readership the past 20 years or so.” And luckily for would-be memoirists, the genre has a wide appeal among commercial publishers.
Why such a recent interest in this form? Perhaps it has to do with the confessional nature of memoir, the reality-based aspect: Just consider the popularity of reality TV. A memoir is a chance to read something that really happened instead of what a fiction writer has imagined. Memoir can serve as a raw baring of the writer’s soul. Yet it had better be more than this for the work to stand a chance of publication.
“Memoir done right is an art, a made thing. It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page,” writes Karr. To write it well, you must make judicious selections from your innumerable fund of personal experiences to create something more than the sum of your memory’s parts. You must render scenes from memory, recreating dialogue, reimagining yourself in the past, and recalling every sensory detail you experienced in any given moment. Finally, the work must, as Karr says, be more than “raw reportage:” It must be seen as an art form. What, after all, is a personal memoir that has no deeper meaning than a stark retelling of events in one’s life? Perhaps it will appeal to one’s family and friends, but its chances of publication are dismal at best.
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As Natalie Goldberg, in Old Friend from Far Away, states: “Memoirs are not usually about your whole life, covering birth to the present moment. They are more an expression of your life through something.” Generally, says Bill Roorbach in Writing Life Stories, only celebrities – heads of state, famous athletes, Nobel Prize winners, etc. – can get away with simply putting their life story on the page from birth to the present. That something Goldberg mentions provides a much-needed focus that is essential in any work of literature.
Keep in mind that memoir doesn’t necessarily need to be strictly autobiographical. It can also be about a person other than the writer, or about a given place, or it can be a “hybrid memoir” combining a personal story with other nonfiction subject areas. Two famous hybrids in recent years are Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Kate Bolick’s Spinster, which have autobiographical elements but cross several genres.
So what makes a great memoir, as memoirists themselves see it? What are some essentials in writing the form well? And what do those in the publishing world consider a salable memoir? We spoke to leading memoirists, agents, and publishers to find out.
Part one: Memoirists speak out
What are your best tips for beginning memoirists on
selling a memoir?
Peter Selgin: My first tip is don’t think how best to sell your memoir, but how best to write it. Write the best book you can, the book that you long to pull down from a shelf and read. Assuming you long to read it, others – including agents and editors – will feel likewise. Writing to the market is an artistic mistake, and probably a commercial one as well. Tell a story that only you can tell as only you can tell it. It may be a sensational story, or not. It may be happy or sad, or both. What will make it memorable is how you tell it, the level of clarity and precision and insights you bring to your memories, the quality of the reflections that they give rise to, the characters evoked through them. Once you’ve written the memoir you long to read, you’ll figure out how to sell it. Then it will just be a matter of having it read by the right people.
Kate Braverman: I would think the question is ‘how do I write a striking, original book,’ rather than ‘how do I sell it.’ How do I find the ability, the focus, skill, and stamina, the conviction for this unnatural surgery? Without vulnerability and exposure, without daring and risk, there can be no revelation. All memoirs are acts of fiction in the sense of not seeking objective truth. Unless one is historically significant with achievements and pedigrees to legitimize us, our lives are ordinary. Memoirs are not acts of journalism, either. The writer selects from the monumental possibilities, strategizes, omits, truncates, and then surprisingly expands. One examines and revises, denies and exaggerates, and in that active engagement with the page, the unexpected emerges. Memoir writing is about the illusion of truth. It’s liberating to recognize that it’s not about the actual events, people, era, and landscape. Writing is about stunning and triumphing over the innocent page, which prefers you not bother it.
Glennon Doyle Melton: Make time. I write first thing in the morning. I don’t have a room of my own, but I do have an hour of my own – I get up first thing in the morning before the world wakes up and starts making demands of me. My early-morning writing hours are my pocket of time to be a soul instead of a role. I also believe we should choose carefully where we do our truth-telling. One thing I remind people is something my friend Nadia Bolz-Weber told me: “If you’re going to share widely – make sure you’re sharing from your scars, not your open wounds.” Love Warrior is intensely personal, but it’s not a diary. I started turning it into a memoir two years after it all happened, and I had enough distance to look at all of it somewhat objectively. So, in real time, we share with our tiny circle of trusted friends and maybe our therapist. Then, when we’ve found some meaning in it all and feel some peace about it, we can take it wider. At that point, if folks don’t want to listen, no worries. But if you’ve got a story burning inside you, it’s likely that somebody out there is burning to hear it. The more personal it is, the more universal it is, too
Shannon Leone Fowler: My advice would be to read and write as much as possible – read widely, join a book club, keep a journal, start a writing group. Write chapters and pass them around to friends and family. Don’t make every change suggested, but consider each one. Rewrite, revise, repeat. I feel I’m done (for the moment) when I can’t tell if the pages make sense anymore. But maybe that’s just me! Decide if you want to try to sell your memoir before it’s finished, or send a complete manuscript out. I found an agent in the early stages of writing Traveling with Ghosts, but it became increasingly clear the book she wanted to sell was not the book I wanted to write. In the end, I finished (with many revisions still to come) and found an agent who completely believed in the story and in the way I wanted to tell it.
What makes a memoir stand out? What makes one truly great?
Shannon Leone Fowler: Unflinching, uncomfortable, and unapologetic honesty is what makes a memoir stand out. I think of Sonali Deraniyagala’s astounding memoir, Wave. It has got to be the most shocking, brutal, raw, brave, and truthful book I’ve read about grief. Because a reader can see through an author who is trying to paint herself or himself in the best possible light, when each and every one of us is capable of noble acts of generosity as well as terrible acts of unkindness. A truly great memoir reflects both of these qualities of the human experience, with moments of light and with moments of darkness.
Glennon Doyle Melton: Truth. I believe that the truth sets us free. I think how that works is this: We think we are bad. We think our feelings and urges and secrets are shameful, and so we hide who we really are. That hiding leaves us isolated and disconnected from others, and often causes us to feel afraid and sick. When we share our real selves, others are inevitably emboldened to come forward, out of hiding, towards us and say those magic words, “me too.” When we hear “me too,” we realize that our feelings and urges and secrets aren’t shameful at all, they’re just human. And so we stop being so afraid of who we are. That realization empowers us to step out of hiding and take bigger steps towards others. Reading a great memoir makes you feel connected and brave and healthy.
Peter Selgin: There are as many answers to the question as there are different kinds of memoirs. For sure a sensational story can make for a sensational memoir. Not having survived a deadly disease or been a mob hit man or sailed solo around the world, I can’t speak to the sorts of memoirs that describe such dramatic experiences, yet each of us has an interesting story to tell, if only we can learn, as Emerson urges himself in his journal, “…how to choose among what [we call our] experiences that which is really [our] experience, and how to record truth truly.” Among the memoirist’s greatest challenges is to rescue memory from imagination, and to do so with the understanding that the one can’t survive without the other. The trick in writing memoir as faithfully as possible is to be aware of the role imagination plays in shaping our memories, in making them cohere into scenes. The next great challenge is to avoid sentimentality, which I define as emotions in excess of experience. What that boils down to, essentially, is the need to make sure that the reader has shared our experiences as fully and accurately as possible so that whatever emotions they end up with derive from the experience itself, rather than from anything added, like sweeteners or food coloring, to it
Kate Braverman: It’s not the story. It’s how you tell it. After all, Ulysses is about one day in Leopold Bloom’s life. June 16. Garcia Lorca said art was a struggle, a process, ancient and unmistakable. It has a quality of the foreign, the eternal and the just born. You recognize it by its sincerity. Your book will be as grand as you make it. Master a writer’s full repertoire – experiment with description, dialogue, characters, textures, scents, specific details you create, not actual details. Use the illusion of thought and memory. Language, language, language. Each word choice is the sum of your life’s experience. Individual syllables are a music you can orchestrate. Sentences are intersections where you can go in any direction – you can fly, transform, predict the future, and time travel. Write for the wild pleasure of the process, give yourself vertigo and fever, and write what you didn’t already know.
How can the writer make the memoir special for the readers instead of being “all about me?” What’s the difference between memoir as art and memoir as a shallow, self-serving telling of one’s own story?
Shannon Leone Fowler: I believe this is one of the trickiest parts of writing memoir, figuring out how to tell a story that is deeply personal yet also universal. My 25-year-old fiancé was killed by a box jellyfish – an incredibly unlucky and unlikely event. Part of my own journey after his death was searching for other stories of grief, which I found all over Eastern Europe. I was desperate to not feel alone, and I was able to lose myself in the histories in the haunted landscapes there and the stories of the people left behind. Some of the most fascinating memoirs are about extreme situations the average reader would never even come close to experiencing. Yet at the core of every story are emotions, hopes, and fears that anyone should be able relate to.
Glennon Doyle Melton: I wrote Love Warrior and rewrote it, and with every paragraph asked myself: How is this not just about me but about the reader? About all of us? How can I turn my personal story into something universal? I sifted through my own pain and mined it for gold to share with others. When we truth-tell widely in real time, it’s alarming to people because it can feel more like a cry for help than an act of service. You must be still with your pain before you can offer it up and use it to serve and connect with people you don’t know. When we get real, we and the people we’re writing to relax because we realize that at our cores, we’re all the same. Our details are different – looks, jobs, families, pasts, personalities – but our essentials – our deepest fears and joys – are the same. For that reason, we’ve got to share the truth somewhere, sometime, with someone because we have to learn that we’re not alone. We realize that our feelings and urges and secrets aren’t shameful at all, they’re just human. So we stop being so afraid of who we are.
Peter Selgin: I think the key thing to understand is that – though based on our memories and experiences – unlike an autobiography, a memoir is never about us. Even when we’re the main character of our memoirs, we’re not the subject. The subject is something bigger than ourselves, a theme to which certain experiences we’ve had attach themselves. In my memoir The Inventors, the dramatis personae are my father (who was an inventor), my eighth-grade English teacher, and myself; but the theme is how we are invented by those who influence us, and more specifically how each of us invents our selves. My father “re-invented” himself by denying his past; the teacher did so by fabricating his. Through their profound influences they in turn shaped my character; they invented, or helped to invent, me. The story I’m telling is my story, but it’s not about me; it’s not even about those two men. It’s about the reader, who, in reading my book, discovers that she, too, like all of us, is her own invention. The test of a great memoir is how much the story it tells us is, ultimately, our own.
Kate Braverman: I is just a word, like she or Aunt Amy or my bridge partner, George. The I you create on the page is just another character. You make your I a multiple being. Find a voice you didn’t know existed. Talk in tongues. Live your incarnations simultaneously. Revise your own history. When they go low, you go high.
Part two: Publishers speak out
Is the memoir market oversaturated?
Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents: I don’t talk in terms of saturated or over-saturated. I do not hear specifically from editors, “The memoir market is saturated.” What I hear is, “We tried a book similar to yours, and we loved it, we all were passionate about it, but it didn’t work. Therefore we can’t buy yours.” So I would never say saturated or unsaturated.
Walter Cummins, co-publisher, Serving House Books: I believe the memoir market mirrors the fiction market. Certain subjects and approaches tend to become overdone in terms of saturation and redundancy. But even a very familiar subject can find an outlet if it offers original approaches and perspectives.
Raphael Kadushin, University of Wisconsin Press: Yes. We get a lot of memoirs, not only from agents and writers that we know, but also from people who aren’t really writers. With their Twitter accounts and blogs, people are so used to telling their own life story that they think it’s almost an obligation to write it. So a lot of the memoirs we receive are from people who never really thought of writing before. Most of the submissions we get are first-time books.
What are your best tips for selling a memoir? What are you looking for now?
Gail Hochman: I’m not looking for this, or that, or the other thing. But if I love the way something is written, then I may be interested enough to pursue it. What I do hear from editors is that they are not looking for the classic memoir about your drunken parents or drug-addicted spouse. I often find editors rolling their eyes at the classic abuse memoir type of thing. What I find is that if somebody writes something fresh – alive, new, creative, we haven’t seen it before – it has a chance. In memoir, voice and story are everything. Even if we’ve seen the story once or twice, if the book creates characters who come alive in a way that glues us to our chairs, then that book has a chance. The problem is that every person who writes a memoir honestly thinks his book will glue readers to their chairs.
Walter Cummins: Because Serving House Books is a literary publisher, the strength of the writing matters most. The quality of the presentation is usually more important than, say, just the unusualness of the subject matter. We’ve turned down manuscripts about sensational subjects that might inspire TV specials because the bizarre isn’t literature. In most cases, good writing is inseparable from deeper and fresher insights into oft-told tales. Consider how many great novels and stories explore love. Why can’t a great memoir offer an original take on a common subject?
Raphael Kadushin: I’m not interested in memoirs that focus on identity politics. What I’m really looking for now are beautifully written memoirs that have some universal resonance. That’s what I think is the problem with most memoirs – there is nothing universal there. It’s rather just the writer’s own story, which is ultimately boring. Unless there’s some poetry or beauty to a memoir, it’s really just another blog.
Are there any overdone or overpitched life stories?
Gail Hochman: The bottom-line is that the conventional stories – like my parents were abusive, or I was locked in a closet for the first 20 years of my life, or I didn’t know my spouse was gay until so-and-so happened – we’ve seen all that before, so of course they’re over-pitched. But when the text reads staggeringly well and makes you see the world that you thought you knew in a somewhat different way, then that’s a different matter. I do a lot of memoirs. I love memoirs. I’ve had projects that I’ve worked on many times. I’ve sent them out in five different drafts. My advice would be to give the book more of a driving center, a premise which then has the arc of a truly dramatic story. I still often hear the same response from editors. And the response usually is not, “There’s something wrong with this book,” or “Here’s a specific problem which needs to be fixed.” The response usually is, “I really liked it. I think XYZ was done so well, but we don’t think we can break it out in a competitive memoir market.” So for a good book, that’s what I find is the most recurring reason for rejection: “We don’t think we can make this a break-out book. So we cannot take it on.” And it is heartbreaking, because some of these books are fabulous.
Walter Cummins: I’ve been arguing that quality of presentation can make any life story compelling and memorable. On the other hand, memoirs that fall into the category of stories for story’s sake can wear a topic thin. Sad as they are, trauma of abused childhood or addiction can be interchangeable if they just present the details of what happened in a way that makes one memoir blur with those that preceded it.
Raphael Kadushin: Yes. The genre is packed with substance-abuse memoirs as well as memoirs of abusive childhoods, sexual abuse, sexual harassment – you know, all the tropes, usually beginning with a decline and fall and then some kind of road to recovery or rehab. Just way too many of these. It’s not that I’m downplaying these problems – they’re the real thing. It’s just that you can tell these stories so many times, and then they lose their power. So in a way, all these stories are really in some ways mitigating against the power of these stories.
What makes a memoir stand out? What makes one truly great?
Gail Hochman: Editors want something fresh. They want something that does not seem derivative. They want something that does not seem like we’ve seen it a thousand times before. But what makes it stand out is usually the writing.
Walter Cummins: I’ve already emphasized the potential power of the words on the page for a good literary memoir that stands out. The great memoirs go beyond literary excellence to truly illuminate much more than an aspect of the life of the writer but lead readers to encounter something fundamental about all our lives, about what it means to be human and to live among others.
Raphael Kadushin: It just comes down to one thing: the quality of the writing. Writing should be left to writers. The sense these days that everyone is a writer is just insulting. I think the problem is that too many non-writers attempt a memoir because everyone can pitch their own life story, and then social media embraces the ideas that every life story is worth sharing. Everyone assumes you need talent to be a musician or an artist, but somehow people dismiss the fact that you actually need talent to write well.
Are hybrids (that blend personal truths with other nonfiction elements) easier to sell because they’re “special,” having more legs than a straight-up personal story?
Gail Hochman: The most important thing to know when looking at publishing these days is that it’s a business. I’m not a business person. I’m a reader, an editor. But it’s a business. Books are categorized – on paperbacks you’ll find this on the back – as Literature, Self-Help, or History, or whatever, so that the bookstore can put it in the store in the right place. If a book is so much of a hybrid that you can’t even figure out where it goes, then it won’t go in the store very well, and no one will find it. So no, I do not usually represent or embrace hybrids. What I find is that personal stories sometimes allow the writer to find his voice, and sometimes a writer will blend various elements. It’s probably a matter of the context or the balance – let’s say the balance. It should be clearly categorizable. If it’s part memoir, part how-to, and part history book, you have set yourself up to fail.
Walter Cummins: Perhaps not easier to sell, but having the possibility of receiving more attention because they can embody original techniques for incorporating different or unique material. That attention may lead to sales.
Raphael Kadushin: They’re more interesting in the sense that they aren’t just personal. The memoirs we’ve done that are the more pertinent ones and that got more attention weren’t just a personal memoir but were something that related to history. For instance, we published a memoir of a gay Jewish man who went through the Holocaust, and we’ve published some Latino memoirs that reflect Latino culture and the conundrum of living in two different cultures. Those books resonate in larger ways than just the personal story. In addition to the quality of the writing, that is something I always look for.
How can the writer make the memoir special for the readers instead of being “all about me?” What’s the difference between memoir as art and memoir as a shallow, self-serving telling of one’s own story?
Gail Hochman: The bottom line is that the guy who writes books has to remember this: Nobody on earth gives a damn about your life and your book, except for you, your friends, your family. Nobody cares – you have to make them care. Now if there were a formula for the writing, I could tell you, but there isn’t. You have to somehow present your story in such a way that it has universal appeal and can put a wide range of people glued to their chairs. If you tell them things about the world we live in that they never really thought about that way – something that they wouldn’t have gotten in a different book – you can make them care. Another thing, I would recommend that a writer make sure the premise of the book appears dramatically in the first 30 or 40 pages. You have to have something happen that gets the ball rolling: a challenge, a question that has to be answered, or a goal that the protagonist is trying to reach, so we say, “Yeah, I got it! Now, oh my god, what is she to do? How would you address that?” You have to tell us early in the book why we’re reading the book. You’ve got to make us care by how you write it, by the story elements you put together, and in what way. In memoir, we have to fall hard for the character and feel swept up in the way the story is told. So when I say “fresh,” I mean not necessarily a fresh story we’ve never heard, even though that’s helpful, but the freshness of how it’s told. That’s the word I hear a lot from the editors that buy the most books from me.
Walter Cummins: I recall a conversation with an editor friend about a memoir draft written by someone I knew, too, though I hadn’t read the draft. The editor said the writer had an interesting and eventful life and captured the drama and emotions of the central events. But the writer hadn’t gone beyond that to identify the themes that unify her life story, a way of grasping the significance of what the facts of her life were all about. That is, about in a manner that would matter to a reader. For most people, what’s happened in their lives matters to them, and they may tell certain personal stories to friends, lovers, children, bartenders, or the person seated next to them on an airplane. That telling may even interest listeners. But a memoir that deserves publication should resonate in a way that’s much deeper than the anecdotal.
Raphael Kadushin: I think if the writer has to ask themselves that question, they shouldn’t be writing a memoir. Any writing as art always comes down to the quality of the writing, and that means actual talent. It’s whether there is real talent, real writing, real voice, and there’s a real story that’s told in a larger, universal way. As to voice, it’s something ineffable. How do you define voice? It’s either there, or it isn’t. An editor’s job is to recognize that.
Some final thoughts
If you pen a memoir, drawing on your many life experiences, think beyond the autobiographical to the universal. How is this about others, not just me? This universalization principle applies to all memoir, regardless of subject. And keep in mind that memoir is not just story but an art form, calling for all the elements of great art in the service of great story-telling – and mainly, a voice that empowers the work, one that readers can’t help but listen to. You’re well on your way to publication if you can manage all that.
Jack Smith is the author of four novels, two books of nonfiction, and numerous articles and interviews.