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YMMV: No One Wants to Read Your %@$# Memoir

🤐 I'll Never Forget About Larry...

As I've mentioned a few times, I work with a lot of new writers, and something that happens not-infrequently is that someone has joined the group because they want to write their memoirs. And I'm not one to talk down to someone who wants to develop their craft as a writer. If someone just wants to collect the stories of their life and are planning to self-publish it and only their family is going to read it (but I repeat myself), that's fine. But if you are actually hoping to make some money from your writing, there's something you're going to need to come to grips with...

No One Wants to Read Your Goddamn Memoir

Before the pedants descend upon me, let me acknowledge that the words "memoir" and "memoirs" mean different things even though most people use them interchangeably. Technically a memoir is an individual story, and a memoirs is a collection of them. I tend to use whichever word feels right in the moment because I don't care and it doesn't matter. You have been warned.

So here's the thing: if you are a new writer hoping to sell a memoir, there are a couple of big challenges. For one, the market is already flooded right now with memoirs from every living comedian and any athlete or musician who was able to secure a ghost-writer. These people have an edge in that they are bringing an existing fanbase to the book. It is understood--nay, expected--that a lot of purchasers of said book don't intend to read it at all. They just want to have it on their shelf because they are a big fan of this already-famous person. And that is who you are competing against in the genre. It sucks, and you have zero control over it.

The other big problem is that memoir is an inherently dull format. It is nothing but backstory, and backstory is, frankly, boring. I was at a writing conference this last weekend and one of the panel discussions was about writing backstory, and the overall guidance was that backstory is best avoided. It's often necessary, and that's why we include it but there's usually a better way to convey that information. Here's another way to think of it: your memoirs are a prequel. They're a prequel to the version of you that currently exists. And as I've ranted before, prequels always suck. So if all you're doing is relating the incidents that shaped who you are, then you are presenting yourself in the least interesting way possible.

To illustrate this, I invite you to think about the world's first encounter with Darth Vader. He shows up at the beginning of Star Wars as the ominous leader of a merciless and faceless army. He has an iconic look, bitchin' theme music, and a spaceship that's so big it literally swallows up another spaceship. And then we hear that mechanical breath and that deep, resonant voice. And then we see him kill someone with his bare (er... gloved) hand and then soon after he comes very close to killing someone with magic. We instantly understand this character. He is ruthless, powerful, and only vaguely human.

But what if, instead, our introduction to that character was the prequel trilogy? What if the expectation was that we carry all of that backstory into Star Wars as a way of grokking who Vader is. What if the prequel trilogy was the "homework" that you have to do in order to enjoy Star Wars. That sounds like a terrible idea, right? If you're trying to use your memoirs to get people excited about you, then that is precisely what you are doing.

There are better ways to introduce yourself to strangers, and it's all about presentation. The way you dress, the way you style your hair, the way you comport yourself, the way you use make-up (or not), the way you start a conversation, even the way you smile for a photo--all of these are things you have crafted over a lifetime in order to outwardly create a favorable-but-accurate impression of your personality. When you talk to people, you talk about your passions and your interests, not your personal history. So if you want to share your life story, it needs to be more than just your backstory--your prequel. It needs to be interesting in its own right.

So how do you present your story--the story of your life--in a way that isn't boring? Well, fortunately, this is something you do have control over. If you want to be able to sell a memoir, then you have three strategies: a) be a notable person, b) tell a notable story, c) have a well-developed and notable authorial voice. And you're going to want to go ahead and pick two of those options. So let's go into them one at a time, shall we?

What does it mean to be an notable person? Well... being famous already is certainly a big help. As I mentioned above, a lot of the successful memoirists out there already have an existing fanbase. And unfortunately that's just not an option to most of us. So perhaps there's not actually a ton that you can do about this other than keeping some perspective. It's worth reminding yourself that... and I hate to be the one to brake this to you... you are not all that notable. I'm not either--so we have some solidarity there. The stories of your life that shaped you... are just not all that interesting, at least not to strangers. You've experienced joy and sorrow, but so has everyone. It's interesting to you because you lived it. It's interesting to your friends and family because they're already invested in you as a character. But no one else is, unless you have a following on Tik-Tok that you aren't telling me about.

I want to reiterate this because it's important. The people that find stories about you interesting do so because they are already invested in the character. You, the person, are driving interest in the story, not the other way around. Because, fundamentally, people are more interesting than stories. As I mentioned in my post on why plot holes don't matter, we are more invested in characters than plot mechanics. It doesn't matter how meticulously intricate the plot is, how rich the world-building is, or how cool the action sequences are--if we don't care whether the protagonist succeeds or fails, then the story isn't working. And it's the same with you and your memoir. You may be an interesting person in real life--most of us are--and your lived experience is what made you you. But this is not transitive. Relating those experiences is not going to drive people to be interested in you.

So if you can't be famous, what do you do? Well, it does help to have an interesting story to tell. Which sounds like a complete contradiction of the above paragraph, but follow me into the weeds here. When you're telling a fictitious story, the first thing you have to do is get the reader on board with the protagonist's journey. You have to convince the reader that this is a person with a goal and that you should care whether they succeed or fail. Because fiction stories involve made up characters, it is paramount that you endear these characters to the reader quickly and efficiently. That's what will make readers care about your story.

And it works in non-fiction as well. Treat your memoir as though it were a work of fiction. It is a story in which you are the main character. And note that I said a story. Not a series of stories that explain who you are, because that's backstory and backstory is boring. Instead, it should follow the shape of a fiction story. It should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It should have a narrative through-line. The main character--that is, you--should undergo a significant change over the course of it. It should be focused. It should have an audience in mind. And also it should be... not mundane. Another point from the linked post on plot holes is that stories are stronger than reality. We want our stories to be an escape from the mundane. We want them to be larger-than-life. Which means that the story you're telling needs to be something that is novel (ahem) to most readers.

Consider popular memoirs from people who weren't famous before they published them. The ur-example here is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Gilbert is telling a single, coherent narrative in which she is the protagonist. It's not the whole story of her life, it's just one very eventful year--although she works in other parts of her life as backstory. That's why it works, even with such an ungainly subtitle. It's a single narrative covering a significant event in which she, the protagonist, grows and learns and changes and pursues a goal and overcomes obstacles in pursuit of that goal.

The other recent example that leaps to mind is Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Once again, it's a single story in which she is the protagonist. It's about an attempt at self-discovery by hiking the PCT on a whim, completely unprepared. It's fraught, it's funny, and Strayed's life history that gets worked into the story is also unique and interesting insofar as it involves non-mundane things like sexual abuse, heroin, and living without electricity or running water. Even if it weren't true, it would be compelling on its own.

It's worth pointing out that both Gilbert and Strayed were successful writers before they published their memoirs. They weren't household names, but they were both accomplished. Gilbert was a journalist and essayist who, for example, had written an article for GQ recounting her time working as a bartender at a very specific bar that popularized table dancing. This article became the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly. Similarly, Strayed was an advice columnist, as well as an acclaimed essayist and novelist.

And this speaks to the final stratagem for actually getting someone to read your goddamn memoir: be a good writer with an interesting authorial voice. That is, hone your craft. You want to know why comedian memoirs became such a colossal sub-genre? I mean, apart from the one-two punch of Steve Martin's Born Standing Up and Tina Fey's Bossypants. It's because comedians tend to be good writers with a singular authorial voice. Because, you know, they write their routines. That turns out to be a transferable skill.

Those are your strategies. Be a person of note, relate a single notable event, have a well-honed authorial voice. Pick two. And if you look at examples of successful memoirists, or more specifically at the authors of successful memoirs, what you're going to find is that they have two of these three things going for them. At least. I've already mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Steve Martin, and Tina Fey. Augusten Borroughs is a good writer with a strong authorial voice, plus the story of how his mother sent him to live with her psychiatrist--chronicled in Running with Scissors--is batshit insane. Wednesday Martin's Primates of Park Avenue covers a narrow window of her life plus it combines primatology with Manhattan elite whackadoo in a way that is very entertaining.

Is it always the case? No. Dave Grohl's memoir is mostly just trading on his name. So is Amy Poehler's. And neither of those were very good. Ellen Degeneres' first book was quite good because she had a unique voice and something to say, but her follow-up--in which she had nothing to say apart from extended gripes about how book-writing is hard--was godawful. The weird exception here seems to be Barack Obama (is it widely known that prior to politics he was best known as a memoirist?). Dreams From My Father was a book from a not-terribly famous man telling a very prequelly story, but it was a unique perspective from a skilled writer that was speaking to a very specific audience. Also, the man turned out to be rather exceptional in other ways, so I think we can let it slide.

Overall, the important take-away here is that a memoir is a type of book first and foremost. It needs to be treated like a real book, not just a litany of events. You need to take your reader on a journey, and the most important part is getting them on board.

That said, it's never too late to start a second career as a stand-up comic.

Next time, we'll take a look at it actually means to show and not tell...

In YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY, Kurt is outlining some of the more unusual bits of authorial wisdom he's amassed over the years. See more posts.


Kathy B said…
I have really strong feelings about almost all of the memoirs mentioned here. And I'd ad "Educated" to the list of compelling memoirs by someone who wasn't famous beforehand.