1. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    Memoirs question. Ok, it’s hard, I know, but any port in a storm.

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by The Backward OX, Apr 15, 2009.

    I am playing with the idea of writing a memoir or memoirs. I have sixty-odd years' worth of experiences to draw on.

    From what I’ve read on the topic, it seems the same tricks are used for creative non-fiction as for novels. I've already written a few shorts, had one published.

    But I’m wondering if anyone might have any specific suggestions on what is needed to make this type of writing readable?

    Thanks in advance for anything worthwhile.
     
  2. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the best thing you can do to learn how to write a good one, is to start reading lots of successfully published memoirs...

    what's needed to sell a memoir is either a well-known person [the author, or one/those known to the author and 'told on' in the book], or out of the ordinary experiences that readers will think are worth paying good money to read about... or both...

    but keep in mind that a memoir has to be the truth, the whole/partial truth, and nothing but... start fudging with what really happened, or add anything that didn't, and it's no longer a memoir...

    plus, you have to consider who you'll be tattling on in it... will any of your friends, relatives, enemies [or their survivors, if 'gone'] have grounds to sue you for libel, or invasion of privacy?...
     
  3. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    As it's difficult for me to obtain and read others’ memoirs - as suggested above - due to my physical location, perhaps I could expand my question:

    1) What elements make up a good memoir? In other words what type of happenings are generally written about, what do people like to read?

    2) How should such a writing form be structured – chronological, groupings, what?
     
  4. DvnMrtn
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    DvnMrtn Contributing Member

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    I have never written anything like what you're suggesting, but if I were to read something I would like it to have a fiction feel to it.

    I almost bought this book today: Permanent Midnight: A Memoir by Jerry Stahl

    The Overview:
    This unabashedly lurid and often highly entertaining book traces Stahl's rise from Hustler staffer, to highly paid prime-time television writer, to his breakneck devolution into self-loathing junkie father and "author of nothing but bad checks." While stumbling cheerily toward rock bottom, he somehow managed to keep landing such plum assignments as writing for Moonlighting and thirty something. But fans hoping for backstage gossip about their favorite shows will be disappointed. For all the rivers of every conceivable narcotic flowing here, there is surprisingly little inside dope. "The truth: This book... is less... an exercise in recall than exorcism." Stahl's manic wise-cracking never wavers, whether he is describing his remote and suicidal parents or a grandmotherly babysitter who forced him to lick Jujubes off her nipples every day after school. While Stahl managed to survive his fall with enough "real funny" intact to provoke some grossed-out laughs, what seems meant as a hilarious memoir of his drug-besotted depression too often becomes just a depressing memoir of his hilarity. A study in self-absorption.

    I doubt that you'd be able to accurately depict 66 years of experience without mistaking or fabricating details. I would suggest making a list of all of the experiences you want to include. Try thinking about the following questions:
    - What defines you as a person?
    - Why is your story unique?
    - What impact can your experiences have on other people?

    Even books labeled as non-fiction have fiction elements to them. My advice would be try writing it like a story with yourself as the main character.

    When I'm finished university I want to move from Canada to Australia and I would be very interested in reading your piece considering your unique location. Keep me posted I'm interested and I'd love to help you out if I could.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    I've not read many engrossing memoirs, so perhaps it really is a nore difficult question than you think. Unless the reader is already fascinated with the author, you will need to give the reader a good reason to wade through Memory Marsh with you.

    When I worked at Wang Laboratories, all the employees received a free copy of Dr. An Wang's memoirs, Lessons. Doctor Wang was a brilliant and interesting man, a true pioneer in the computer industry. He invented the magnetic core memory, the principle technology for computer memory before semiconductor storage. Still. the story of his life was not exactly a page-turner, even given that his life was a real rags-to-riches saga.

    Most memoirs seem to be either about figures of historical interest, such as presidents or Secretaries of State, or success/inspirational stories. The latter are of interest to readers who would like to follow a similar path.

    I think your first task is to decide what it is your memoirs are intended to deliver to te reader, because you will have to start selling the reader on that from the outset - even as soon as the reader sees the dustcover.
     
  6. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ...why?... surely you can buy books in queensland, as mail is delivered even in the outback, right?... you can also 'sample' many memoirs on amazon, with there 'see inside this book' feature...

    ...too many things to list... but generally, things that ordinary folks don't experience... no one wants to read about the same stuff they do, unless it's to help with dealing with tragedy and that sort of thing... cog's comments on this are valid and i agree with them in toto...

    ...of course, arranging it chronologically would make much better sense and read better, than jumping around in time... but if you're writing a 'memoir' it will deal with only one phase of your life... to toss in all of it would make it an autobiography...

    ...but, again, keep in mind that no one has ever heard of you, so what you write about had better be so out of the ordinary, that perfect strangers will pay the price of a good meal in a decent restaurant, to read it...
     
  7. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    I find it difficult to follow the reasoning that one must have fame (or notoriety) before becoming a successful memorialist or autobiographer, and have appended two accounts that appear to give the lie to this remark.

    I have read neither of these and obtained my initial information from one who has.

    A Fortunate Life is an autobiography by Albert Facey, published in 1981 (nine months before his death). It chronicles his early life in Western Australia, his experiences as a private during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, and his return to civilian life after the war. It also documents his life of hardship, loss, friendship and love.

    Soon after publication, Facey became a celebrity, appearing on many talk shows. He considered his life to be simple and “had no idea what all the fuss was about”. He became one of Australia’s most famous heroes. When asked during an interview where the name of the book originated, he replied, ‘I called it “A Fortunate Life” because I truly believe that is what I had’.

    A Fortunate Life has become a classic of Australian literature and one of Australia’s most beloved books. It has become a primary account of the Australian experience during World War I, and is utilised in many schools as a book for young adults.



    Similarly, I Can Jump Puddles is an Australian classic by a person whose only claim to fame was as a writer.

    When Alan Marshall was six years old, in 1908, he contracted polio, leaving him with a physical disability that grew worse as he grew older.

    From an early age, he resolved to be a writer, and in I Can Jump Puddles, written in 1955, he demonstrated an almost total recall of his childhood.

    His story has been made into a TV mini-series, and the local authority where he lived for many years has established the annual Alan Marshall Short Story Competition for emergent writers.


    To my way of thinking, contracting polio or being a private in the army are not the stuff of fame, yet somehow these two made the big time.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    No, surviving polio would probably fall more under the "inspirational" umbrella. The soldier memoir is a form of "famous person" memoir - soldiers are heroes, albeit mostly anonymous ones.
     
  9. The Backward OX
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    The Backward OX Senior Member

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    There are any number of published authors who have written novels in the first person about ordinary everyday people. The first that come to mind are Mark Twain and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Charles Dickens and David Copperfield.

    To my way of thinking, a novel in the first person about an ordinary person and a well-written true account by an ordinary person would have little difference in their appeal. In their lives as depicted, neither Finn nor Copperfield were famous or inspirational. So why wouldn’t any well-written true account have equal appeal? That of course was a rhetorical question.
     
  10. DvnMrtn
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    DvnMrtn Contributing Member

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    I wasn't necessarily saying that you had to be famous, what I meant was make sure there's an experience the readers can relate with but at the same time that experience has to be unique or memorable.

    If you were at a book store and you had to choose between a handful of books make sure your book has a reason to be chosen. You can't appeal to all demographics but I have a feeling that's how the publisher will look at it.
     
  11. Kursal
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    Kursal Senior Member

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    I have written three autobiographies about different people (yes, I see the paradox but I have). In each case they have been successful because they were famous. The writing wasn't particularly good and the stories weren't particularly engaging.

    You don't need to be famous but you do need something that will hook the readers in. Traditionally this has been overcoming adversity or being part of a famous event. David Copperfield, for example, is a book about overcoming adversity.

    So, the starting point is what have you done with your life which is out of the ordinary? What great events have you lived through? is there any adversity that you have overcome?

    If so, make these things the theme of your book. They are the hook. You can then write around those themes, pretty much anything you want to be honest. That's the real trick, grounding your experiences with the hook.
     
  12. lynneandlynn
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    lynneandlynn Contributing Member

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    I'd have to agree with everyone else here...the story has to be an engrossing one. The one memoir I read was about a young girl who survived a war in Yugoslavia. The back of it caught my eye because she wrote about the war she dealt with in Yugoslavia when she was only nine years old and the aftermath of that war in her life. She wasn't famous, so it's not necessary that you be famous...it's just necessary that your story is going to intrigue someone enough to pick it off the shelf instead of a different memoir.

    ~Lynn
     
  13. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    exactly!... that's what i was saying, as well...

    an out of the ordinary story is what will make a book a bestseller... and exceptional writing is what will make a book a critical success...

    an ordinary story told by a so-so writer won't succeed either way...
     

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