Stranger Than Fiction? Probably Not: Why you might want to rethink your memoir
Today, our lovely editor and Reedsy advisor Rebecca Heyman shares her thoughts on writing memoirs. In this lively and informative post, Becca offers some brilliant no-nonsense insights on the competitiveness of the memoir genre and why fiction might be a safer bet.
Memoir is everywhere. The genre is pervasive, clogging slush piles and hard drives and bookshelves. Part of its ubiquity might have something to do with the pop-psych notion fed to so many Millenials for so long, that we are all special and unique, our perspectives and experience critical. Another contributing factor is a literal interpretation of the author’s adage, “Write what you know,” which is in fact a call to use your experience as a launching point for story, not a script.
To be clear: I am not addressing those writers producing memoir to establish a family legacy. In this article, I’m talking specifically to those authors who plan to query agents or indie-publish—in short, those who intend their work for public consumption.
Okay, now that we’ve got that squared away, allow me to tell you why a vast majority of memoirists would be better off committing their creative energy to a novel or, if you must, a short story collection.
Reason #1: You don’t have an existing platform
Have a look at the best-selling memoirs for 2014. In preparation for writing this post, I looked at lists by the New York Times, the Guardian, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and more. What I found is that close to 70% of the titles on all these lists came from famous people—politicians, celebrities, musicians, or figures of national import. The remaining 30-or-so percent of successful memoirs came from people with extraordinary personal experiences (think Cheryl Strayed’s Wild adventure), or previously published authors or poets.
Even based on such an unscientific survey, it’s easy to see that the memoirs selling best give readers a glimpse into a life most of us can’t imagine. And since the best memoirs transport us to another time and place the same way a good novel does, that distance between reader and author experience is critical.
Reason #2: Stranger than fiction? Probably not
The human condition is rife with suffering and joy. Mining our lives for wisdom is critical for our growth, and can sometimes yield rich, textured narratives that speak to our universal experience. So keep in mind that when I tell you the market is not looking for another breast cancer survivor’s narrative, or another memoir about how you emerged from addiction, I am not saying you shouldn’t share your story. You should. But your story is likely not as unique as you think which for many of us is a good thing. It means we’re not alone. It also means it’s unlikely your manuscript will get picked up by a traditional book publisher.
There are incredible online communities for personal narrative, and publishing on sites like Tumblr, WritersCafe and Scribophile can serve your artistic purpose on several levels: you’ll get to tell your story publicly and maybe attract a support system; you’ll probably get feedback (brace yourself—the internet is a gnarly place); and you’ll be able to gauge if your narrative has real legs, which might help you decide whether or not pursuing agency representation or independent publication is actually a good choice.
What I want to caution against is writing 60,000-80,000 words of soulful, heartfelt narrative that will only be rejected by the publishing establishment. The market won’t buoy you up just because you’ve experienced tragedy, found salvation or traveled the world. As harsh as this may seem, the truth is that the market doesn’t care about you or your compelling story; the market cares only about compelling stories that also sell copies.
Reason #3: You haven’t considered craft
Much of what makes successful memoirs great is that they read like novels. Memoirs have plot. They have tension, momentum, lyricism, style, and mood. And while some memoirs are “tell-all,” a memoir is not a diary. Memoir is actually a genre under the banner of “narrative non-fiction”—a moniker that cues just how important story really is.
Learning to write well is excruciating, difficult, thankless work. I can almost promise you that trying to better your writing craft while working on a piece that deals with highly personal events is going to be a disaster. You might have heard the adage “Kill your darlings”—an admonition to authors to edit their work ruthlessly, even at the expense of eliminating beloved passages or characters. Now imagine that the passages you need to delete are formative scenes from your autobiography, the characters your friends and family. Don’t even get me started on how atrocious your characterizations are sure to be if you’re trying to glorify the people you love and vilify those who have wronged you—that’s a recipe for failure every time.
If you feel you must be a memoirist, you must be a passable writer first.
Okay you’ve convinced me. Now what?
Maybe you’re starting to think a memoir isn’t your best bet. The key now is to keep writing…something else. Consider what about your story is most compelling: A particular relationship? A climactic event? A tragic or extraordinary set of circumstances that unfolded in an unexpected way? Extract what’s most incredible about your life and use that as the seed for something wonderful—and fictive. Please do not write a novel that is actually a thinly-veiled autobiography, as works of this nature unequivocally fall flat for reasons too numerous to illuminate here. Challenge yourself to be inspired by empirical experience and reach into the creative ethers to synthesize something incredible. Be your own inspiration. Be unafraid.
If you still think your memoir has what it takes to thrive in a crowded market, write it. And write a few personal essays too; try to get your work published in reputable literary magazines ahead of querying, and you’ll have an easier time standing out in the slush. If you’ve lived a life the world needs to know about, tell us—just be prepared to fight through a lot of noise to be heard.
What are your thoughts on memoir writing? Is the genre too competitive and dominated by celebrities for first-time authors to stand a chance? Let us know your thoughts, or ask Becca any question, in the comments below!