Thursday, June 02, 2011

Before You Write Your Memoir ...

... think twice: Memoirs are wonderful. They aren't the easiest books in the world to sell, but everyone should write one. Okay, almost everyone, but mostly everyone, sometime. If you have been thinking about writing a memoir, here are some questions to ask yourself.
  • Is it the right time? There is a right time. If you're too old or frail to put pen to paper or to promote your finished book, it may be too late. If the subject matter is too fresh in your mind--if you have too many resentments, too many scores to settle--it may be time to put your memories in a journal but too early to put them in a book meant for the public. Memoirs are not for the young, the young being those who haven't live long enough to make peace with themselves and the others in their lives. I recall a workshop in which a psychologist--I can't remember his name--pointing out that people do not fully mature until they work out their "parent stuff." Everyone has parent stuff, no matter how good their parents were, and it doesn't usually get worked out until the thirties (and then only if you're particularly precocious). Until it happens, you're probably not ready to write your memoir.
  • Is it too much? It doesn't have to be. One of the mistakes people make is trying to do too much in a memoir. When you're 85 and set off to tell the story of you're entire life, you could easily wind up with a 1,000 page book, which may be too expensive to put together and too intimidating for anybody to read. Good memoirs have a focus--something besides "my entire life." Mine, From Rome to Jerusalem, is about a religious transition that took a lifetime. Someone else could write a memoir about a specific time in their lives: their war experiences, their career, their struggle with breast cancer, and so on. Another format that works well for families is a compendium of stories. A bonus is that the order of the stories is not critical.  They don't even need to be chronological, which tends to make the project easier to write and complete. Another terrific memoir, especially to pass on to your descendants, is the equivalent of an "ethical will." Such a memoir would be organized around specific traits or values you find important instead of a chronological walk through your life. The other decision you could--and should, I would argue--make is to write a memoir of a specific length. I like 50,000 words because it produces a book of around 160 pages, which is long enough to be taken seriously and short enough to be inviting.
  • How do I treat the people in my life? Good question, one you'll have to resolve. When I wrote my memoir, I kept going back to the idea that this was my story. This helped me keep the focus on my feelings, my thoughts, and my behavior rather than that of my family, friends, and colleagues. Realizing I could damage someone's reputation by writing the truth as well as an untruth, I watched what I wrote (keeping in mind that this was, again, my story) and then shielded the identity of most characters as an added protection.  The Publishing Pro.

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