Thinking of Writing a Memoir?

Reading: Thinking of Writing a Memoir?

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Thinking of Writing a Memoir?

Here’s why you should go for it — even if you never publish

By Marcia Menter

Yes, I’ve written one. It took years. Once I finished it, I rewrote it. And then I couldn’t drum up any interest from an agent or publisher. This story I needed so much to tell was not sellable in today’s market: a memoir by a female baby boomer about trying (and failing) to learn to sing. Memoirs are a hard sell, I was told. So are books about classical music, and books by older authors who don’t already have a following … 20 years ago I might have had a shot at signing with a mainstream publisher, but not now.

However, there are a whole lot of new self-publishing options for writers who want to get their books professionally produced. These are not vanity presses, but serious marketers that do everything a mainstream publisher would do: editing, designing, printing, distributing. I signed with a hybrid press (a model that combines traditional publishing methods with self-publishing ones), and they’ve done an excellent job educating and nurturing me along the way. What “hybrid” means in this context is that I pay for their services; I’ll be surprised if I make much money on this book. But it’s out there.

Publishing matters to me because my memoir is also a biography — of Ann Drummond-Grant, the Scottish singer whose recorded voice changed my life. She was featured on the Gilbert and Sullivan albums I listened to obsessively as a teenager, and her gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice kindled in me an ambition to become a singer and maybe even join her onstage one day. Neither of those things happened. I found out that she died before I knew she existed; and my own slender soprano didn’t amount to much despite years of training. But I never stopped treasuring her voice or wanting to learn more about her. At the time of her death in 1959, she was a well-known, well-loved performer. She deserved a biography. I spent years researching her life, and that research became part of my story. This book is for her.

Becoming a Published Author: Be Honest
Here’s the thing: Even if I hadn’t published my memoir, I’d be glad to have written it. The writing process was transformative — which is not to say it was easy. For a memoir to be any good, the writer must be absolutely honest. Readers can tell when you’re fudging the truth, glossing over things that make you uncomfortable. The tone becomes vague or stilted, like this: “Mother and I didn’t always get along, but there was love between us.” The writer of this hypothetical sentence clearly has major issues with her mother, feelings she hasn’t worked through and doesn’t want to talk about. 

If you can’t tell the whole truth about your life, write about something else. But if you can tell the whole truth, it will set you free. 

Here’s an example: 

At 16, awkward and shy, I went with my father to a performance by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, Ann Drummond-Grant’s former troupe. Afterward, we went backstage. I was so nervous about meeting the people she had worked with, and so sure nobody would talk to me, that I staged a coughing fit — I’d read somewhere about a young woman doing this to get noticed. It started out as a fake fit and became a real one. Everyone was kind, but they would have been just as kind if I hadn’t been coughing my brains out. I simply didn’t believe it was okay to present myself as I was.

I remembered this experience as utterly humiliating, but it was part of my story and I had to write about it. This felt exactly like pulling my own teeth. Somehow, deciding what to say — choosing the words, putting them in order — changed the way I felt about the incident. It was no longer humiliating, no longer toxic. It was just a rash impulse of my 16-year-old self, for whom I felt a new compassion. I let myself off the hook. I changed the past.

As I wrote the book, a thousand small embarrassing things — some of them not so small — lost their sting. I failed to master vocal technique as a music student. But when I sat down to write about the physical process of singing — about the many factors, including heredity and temperament, that make a finished artist — I began to understand  that my “failure” was nothing of the kind. I simply didn’t have the body or soul of a singer. I had to find out who I wasn’t before I could find out who I was.

There was also an episode I never talked about: When I was a toddler, I was sexually assaulted by a teenage boy from the neighborhood. I’d tucked this memory into a tiny corner. It never occurred to me to write about it until I realized with a flash that it explained a lot about why I never dated as an adolescent — why I preferred the company of Brahms to the company of boys. In my book, the description of the assault amounts to a couple of paragraphs. But, putting that puzzle piece into place has helped me see my life differently. I used to think there was something wrong with me. There wasn’t.

How to Write a Memoir: Getting Started
You think you know your own story. After all, you’ve lived it. But a story changes when you write it down. It changes by virtue of how you tell it — what you put in and what you leave out. You don’t have to spill every last detail; you have the right to keep some things private. It’s the quality of your introspection that matters. If you have the courage to look at yourself honestly, that courage will shine on the page. And I guarantee you’ll feel good about what you’ve written, whether or not you decide to publish it.

So, how do you begin the process? 

Bypass the beginning. A memoir doesn’t have to be chronological. Start with something juicy — a memory with a lot of emotional energy. If it grabs you, it will grab the reader too. You don’t need to recount your entire childhood unless that childhood is the main focus. (Say, if you were raised by wolves.)

Consider your reader. Who are you talking to? If you’re writing for your children or grandchildren, you’ll want to include a lot of family stories that won’t interest a general reader. If you want to reach a wider audience, think about what makes your story relatable. Why are you telling it? 

Consider your voice. If you have a sense of humor, use it. If you have deep knowledge about a subject, flaunt it. If you’re angry, use that anger to help you find clarity. Read memoirs by other writers and ask yourself what you admire or dislike. The qualities you relate to are ones you can cultivate in your own writing.

Write it twice. At least twice. When you finish a draft, you’ll be besotted with it. That’s when you need to put it in a drawer for a while, then give it a fresh look. You’ll see passages that need to be streamlined, clarified, or cut. Find a trusted reader (or readers) to look at your work and give you honest feedback. You can ignore this feedback, but if it gives you pause, consider their suggestions.

Think about self- or hybrid publishing. I’m not sure how to break this to you, but unless you’re a social media influencer or your mother is, say, Kris Jenner, your chances of blindly landing a deal with a traditional publisher are slim to none. This is NOT a reflection on you. The publishing business has changed radically in recent years, and many excellent books now get rejected because they don’t fit some commercial template. On the flip side, there’s no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing. And the hybrid model I used is an option too. Just follow their submission guidelines. They’ll either accept your manuscript outright or recommend that you work on it more with their editorial guidance. Every step will cost you. You have to pay for printing too. But you retain the rights, and editorial control.

If your book is good, get it out there! 

Marcia Menter’s memoir That Voice: In Search of Ann Drummond-Grant, the Singer Who Shaped My Life will be published in June 2024 by She Writes Press.

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