Memoir: Going From Catharsis to Business


I’m having one of those “In case of emergency, break glass” moments…however, between you and me, I think that box should contain a margarita dispenser instead of a fire hose, but I digress.

I’m seeking to put out a literary fire that’s trending in the Memoir genre, which is writing as a catharsis. Don’t get me wrong, I think writing as a form of catharsis is a wonderful, beneficial thing. But where I draw the line is when authors short-circuit the process and believe their work is ready for publication…hence my need to break glass because I do see this as an emerging trend.

Cathartic writing is the healing process of pouring out your heart and putting it to cyber paper. I so get that. If I’m really chewing on something and it keeps rattling around my brain, I take to my Word program and barf it out. That act of going from head/heart to cyber paper finally shakes whatever demons may be keeping me awake at night. It’s my form of catharsis. But that doesn’t mean it’s ready, willing, or able to hit the book stands.

Cathartic writing with the intent on publication is a wholly different thing. This is where the author must go from moving through her writing, using emotion as her fuel, to moving toward a business with conscious intent. And writing is a business. As a publisher who specializes in Memoir, I am inundated with authors who experienced something – be it illness, addiction, abandonment, unemployment, whatever – and decide to write about it. Their queries are almost template-like:

“When I was going through my (fill in the blank), I looked for a book that would help me. I couldn’t find any, so I decided to write this in order to help someone else.”

For starters, I see this paint-by-the-numbers explanation so much that my eyes glaze over. Reason being, rarely is this statement true. Cancer/addiction/abandonment/unemployment/divorce/etc. has been written about to ad nauseum. This kind of explanation tells me they haven’t done any research on their particular topic because their writing came from a place of healing.

In other words, they aren’t looking at their writing as a business. They’re writing because they’re wounded in some manner and want to write about it…and this doesn’t necessarily make for a marketable book. Hence, I write far more rejection letters than I do asking to see pages.

Define Yourself

Hobbyist or Hell-Yes-Katie-Bar-The-Door: Really, this appeals to all writers, not just those writing memoirs. Define your writing intent. Are you a hobbyist writer who loves the act of writing, but have no interest in going anywhere with it, or do you believe your story has merit and you’re willing to shift your thinking into doing what it takes to be a published writer? Honesty is the best policy here because it’ll save a lot of time and tears when/if you decide to query.

Expectations: In knowing how to define yourself, you need to be aware of publishers’ expectations. Publishers are professionals, and they look for authors who are equally professional. This means that you understand how the publishing business works, what is expected from you, and what you should expect from your publisher. It’s achingly hard to teach an author the rudiments of editing and promotion. Some catch on very quickly and embrace it. Others freak out and question themselves at every turn.

First off, be prepared to be edited to within an inch of your life. Editors will make editing suggestions (“I don’t understand the relationship between you and this other character.”), and it’s incumbent upon you to know how to make those changes. This requires the talents of a writer who’s serious about their craft. I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to work with authors who have a good story but don’t understand the technique of writing.

If you’re serious about your writing being a business, then please make sure you don’t embarrass yourself by not having a handle on story organization, character development, plot structure, etc. This will ensure your editor’s head doesn’t explode.

Promo/Platform Talents: Successful writers are active with their promotion. A publisher’s marketing and sales teams can only go so far with distribution and marketing a memoir if the author chooses to remain uninvolved. First thing they ask is, “What’s the author doing?” If I say, “He’s sitting on his padunk-a-dunk playing Spider Solitaire,” then our sales teams are gonna be laughed out of their zip code.

Define your strengths. Some authors are great at writing articles for magazines, while others have discovered their inner hambone and enjoy doing seminars and talks. Does your memoir have topics from which you can pull that would make an effective seminar?

Whatever your strengths, it’s never too late to begin formulating that plan and putting it into action before you think about querying. For example, a friend of mine got a six-figure/3 book deal based solely on her platform. She’s not a household name, but she’s definitely out there, and a recognized expert in her field. Her agent had only the barest of an outline to pitch to editors, yet Penguin snapped her up like a hot potato. That’s because my friend treated her writing as a business. And since she is steeped in the business world, she didn’t want to rely solely on her publisher to make her success happen. She took control, and Penguin loved her more than life.

Reshape Your Thinking

Confidence: If you’ve defined yourself as a serious writer, then you need to reshape your thinking from writer to business person. Let’s face it, writing is a lonely, solitary endeavor, and you probably ask yourself if you’re worthy. This normally comes from a place of inexperience and lack of research of your competition. Sadly, this lack of confidence usually shows up in query letters or author/editor conversations.

Instead of asking yourself if you’re worthy, maybe it would be healthier to channel Stewart Smalley; “Of course I rock. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” But don’t forget that you have to have the goods to back it up, and that takes research of the very thing you’re writing about.

Research: My friend has been in the process of finding a new job. Each interview request she’s gotten, she’s done extensive research on the company, the management, and the person interviewing her because she wants to be fully prepared. But more importantly, she wants to stand out from everyone else the companies may be interviewing. There’s no denying that she knows her stuff, but if she knows the VP graduated from UCLA, then she can have some fun with him because she graduated from USC (major cross-town rivals). Is this brown-nosy? Depends on how you perceive brown nosy, I suppose. But the VP is human, and there’s nothing wrong with going off script a little in order to gain some memorable footing. She hopes he’ll remember her, and that speaks volumes when there are more people looking for jobs than there are open positions.

The same can be said about publishing. Do your homework and research your competition. Is your particular topic impacted, and if so, to what extent? If it’s been done before many times, then it’s your job to analyze what elements make your story unique. And it has to be a big “unique.” Your book about your family member’s Alzheimer’s doesn’t make it unique. However, if your book is about Early Onset Alzheimer’s, then you’re talking about a much smaller population of those kinds of books.

It’s hard to reshape your thinking because you’re entering unknown territory. You’re daring to go from writer of a specific experience to being a business entity who will help promote that experience, so you need to ask yourself how badly you want it.

Be Clear in Your Head: Authors are often wounded souls, and writing their memoir is often a catharsis. I’ve known many writers who have been penning their works for many years, yet they remain hopeful about eventual publication.

Writers taking that long to complete their memoir have mental hurdles that are preventing them from finishing their manuscripts. They’re not ready to let go. I’ve seen a number of queries that stated how the author had been working for eight years on their project, and voila…here it is! It’s a pass for me because I’m fairly certain they have no other books in them waiting to be written. They’re a one-book trick, and I’m looking for authors who have multiple books in them. A writer who looks at their writing as a business finishes the book in a timely fashion, or they stick it under the bed and start a new book. They don’t normally work on that one book for many years.

If it’s taking you years to complete your memoir, then you should ask yourself whether you’re ready to move on. If you’re still wounded and need help, then get it because you’re defeating your own road to success. You’ll never be able to move to Business Person because you’re still in the Cathartic Stage. What’s worse, is that you’ll never understand why you’re getting so many rejections, and this is where a lot of writers decide to self-publish.

It’s ok if you want to self-pub, but you must be very clear and knowledgeable about what self-publishing entails in order to enjoy any measure of success. Otherwise, you’ll disappear into the morass of other poorly thought out, poorly written books already populating the online stores.

In order to write, it helps to have a clear head. If you’re in the Cathartic Stage, then embrace it because it’s where your feelings are the most raw and honest. But if you’re serious about your writing, you need to eventually move and grow. Get clear and define yourself so you can move forward to the Business Stage, where the real success happens. Now go forth and be brilliant.

2 Responses to Memoir: Going From Catharsis to Business

  1. Paul Reben says:

    Your site states it wants to deal with social journeys with a personal relevance. It says nothing about memoirs.

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