Memoirs: Answering the Tough Questions


The woman sat across the table from me. In between watery eyes, she pitched her memoir to me – a heartbreaking family story. She could barely choke it out, which had me vacillating between empathy and being really uncomfortable. I let her compose herself by looking around the large conference room at the 20-odd other agents and editors listening to pitches…and taking a deep breath myself.

Indeedy do…memoirs are very personal, but you need to have several degrees of separation from your story. If you’re still sobbing and emotionally wrought, then you’re still in Catharsis Land (July post). You’re not ready to answer the tough questions because you haven’t moved out of the grieving process. When I say grieving process, I don’t mean grieving over a physical death, but rather an emotional one.

Memoirs are borne from Life happening to us. Something momentous drops in our laps and offers us the opportunity to act. It’s that process of action that creates the catalyst for a memoir. And it’s not the mundane “my mom died,” because unfortunately, everyone’s mom dies at some time. Rather, it’s the out-of-the-box action you decided to take because your mom died, and the evolutionary process you experienced because of that event…hello LEARNING TO PLAY WITH A LION’S TESTICLES – which had author Melissa Haynes volunteering at an animal reserve in South Africa after her mother’s death. Her intent was to help the animals – only it ended up being the other way around. This twist is not only amazingly out of the box, but entirely out of the zip code. An excellent summer read that’ll have you laughing and sobbing.

Unfortunately, the author sitting across from me at the writer’s conference was far from laughing. She was sobbing by now. She definitely had Life drop in her lap, but I needed to know more because I suspected she wasn’t ready for publication, and here’s why:

What happened?

I know this sounds elementary, but I’ve been amazed at the number of writers who have a hard time pinpointing the exact catalyst because they’re so caught up in the emotional blowback.

“My husband left me.” Okay…um…so what? I don’t mean to diminish anyone’s pain, but lots of marriages end, so the “what happened” has to go deeper than simply being abandoned.

“My husband left me after finding out I was diagnosed with cancer. I lost my health insurance, and all I had was a rescue beagle to comfort me.” Ah. Now we have something more to hang our hat on because we can see the crisis in full bloom and the direction of this story.

The writer who can’t get past her husband leaving her isn’t ready to move on. She needs time to work through the grieving process.

What action did you take?

The writer sitting across from me was taken aback at this question, and I watched her shift uncomfortably in her seat as she groped for an answer. She concluded that she really hadn’t taken any action because she was still living in a hell of her own making and trying to figure a way out.

Ah. So she’s reacting rather than proacting. If the “main character,” which is presumably the author, is constantly reacting to situations around her, then she is taking a back seat to the unfolding events. They become bigger than the “main character.” A compelling memoir can’t be about stuff constantly happening to you – you need to take action at some point by being proactive.

Face it, it’s dull to read about a woman whose husband abandons her, her sons take financial advantage of her, her dog dies, and her car blows up after she gets fired from her job…and all she does is continually play the victim. That’s reactionary. As tragic and sad as it all is, who cares? Bandini happens to all of us. While we don’t want to be heartless to someone’s plight, we know that audiences won’t flock to a story where the protagonist talks about all the crappy things happening to her, but never takes action and fights back.

What was your evolutionary process?

“No gets out alive.” I love this because it hints to a much deeper meaning that challenges us to make the most of what we have in the time we have it. We have to decide how we’re going to move through life. I don’t believe we remain unchanged by the events that happen to us. Do we either become better, more thoughtful, patient, or tolerant, or do we become bitter, frightened, angry, or passive?

The author sitting across from me was stumped by this question. She had no idea how she had changed, which told me a) she hadn’t thought about it, or b) she was so deeply immersed in the victim role, that she hadn’t evolved yet.

An interesting memoir needs to speak to how the author has evolved. This is how readers become engaged with you and your plight. Your “character” must move from Point A to Points B, C, D, and E.

What is the resolution to this event?

There needs to be an ending to the story. Even if the situation is still ongoing, there needs to be a resolution. You may still be divorced or have cancer, but you’ve learned to stand on your own and take control of your future. Your sons may have robbed you blind, but you’ve tossed them out on the street and are taking control of your life by being a foster home to rescue dogs.

The author at this conference had no resolution to her story because she was still neck-deep in the situation. I suggested that perhaps she was too hasty in writing her memoir. She’s still so embroiled in the current situation that there hasn’t been any personal evolution or resolution.

Since she was still emotionally fragile, I suggested that she might be better served to consider her writing as a catharsis because crisis events tend to warp if they stay inside of us. We need to get it out in some way. Some jog, some work out, some eat, others write.

The important thought to consider is where are you in your memoir journey? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What happened?
  • What action did you take?
  • What was your evolutionary process?
  • What was the resolution to this life-stopping-jaw-dropping event?

Analyzing your answers to these questions may help you decide whether you’re still in Catharsis Land or you’re ready to move into the business of a writing career.

2 Responses to Memoirs: Answering the Tough Questions

  1. Mrs. M says:

    Thank you for this post! I am currently blogging about my past of child abuse and working on a memoir as well. I debated publication because I really wasn’t sure if my story had reached a sufficient conclusion but I’m beginning to think that it has. Being proactive and evolving is definitely key in finding peace with one’s story.

  2. ericjbaker says:

    Maybe she should go ahead and write it for her own feeling of catharsis. And leave it in the drawer as a reminder of what she endured and how it made her stronger. Then write something else.

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