Perhaps due to New Year’s resolutions, I’ve received several letters lately asking for advice from new memoir writers. Just guessing there are more of you out there, so I thought I’d write one blog for all. This gives me a chance to wear BOTH my hats for once – as a creative writing teacher and as a veteran of the war against ED.
First off, whatever your stage of recovery, DO write your life. Writing a journal or memoir gives you ownership over your life. When you see your experiences on the page it’s so much easier to see what’s true and what’s imposed, how others may be influencing or even distorting your story. And this record can also help you see what needs to change for you to follow the course that will bring you health and happiness. Always write for your self first. Your other readers may include your therapist and family, depending on your circumstances. Or, you may write the memoir that you wish your family could or would read. This may be hugely beneficial even if your family is no longer alive.
The rest of my remarks go not to writing a memoir so much as they do to writing one that might be published by a mainstream publisher and marketed to a broader readership. Please understand that this is a whole other enterprise from writing a memoir solely for yourself and your family. Sometimes one book can serve both masters, but usually not – or not without a GREAT deal of editing and soul searching. Even if the personal memoir becomes the publishable memoir, it usually will go through so much editing you’ll end up with two distinctly different books.
So here are some general guidelines, based on my experience as the author and co-author of more than 10 books, including two memoirs and many personal essays, and as an MFA graduate and professor.
1. Write to insight. Getting your story down is not enough for a wider audience. Readers want to be shown insights that they can apply to their own lives. From your personal story a published memoir needs to reach out to more universal truths and understandings. You will gain these as you write, but always, always strive in your writing to identify and reach them.
2. Write from the perspective of recovery. No matter what your stage of wellness, the story to be told is a journey to now. The stuff of story is meaningful change. Readers want to be taken on this journey through change, and unless what’s-in-it-for-them is a cautionary tale, they’ll want to discover some reason for hope at the end of the journey.
3. Beware of cautionary tales. The Greeks and Shakespeare were good at them. Think Oedipus Rex. Most of us are not so much, and especially not if our own lives are the cautionary subject. Cautionary memoirs tend toward sensationalistic wallowing in the damning details. Meaningful, SATISFYING stories need the whole truth– the bad, the ugly, and especially the good. Confessionals rarely satisfy unless the confession comes with truly transformational epiphanies.
4. Write what’s missing in the literature on your subject. I wrote my memoir Solitaire when no one had ever published a memoir of anorexia. That’s the primary reason it was published. It would not be published today, given the hundreds of other eating disorder memoirs now available. Thirty years later my book Gaining was published because it was the first to look at what happens to people’s lives AFTER they have recovered from the physical symptoms of eating disorders. Consider your own life and experiences and focus on what you have to say or study that’s NEW and DIFFERENT on the subject. Could be your culture, the underlying reasons for your struggle, or – and I personally think this is the most compelling – the new direction your life took as you opened up during recovery. Think of ED as part of your subject matter, not the whole enchilada. Remember, ED is almost always the same (or bears a suffocating similarity from one person to the next), but YOU are unique.
5. READ LITERATURE!!!!! The more quality literature – and NOT just ED lit – that you read, the better you will write and the more you will know, and the better you write and the more you know, the more likely you will be to get published. Study other subjects. Widen your literary world. I have many qualms about Marya Hornbacher’s WASTED, but the quality of her writing was not one of them. And the beauty of her words was a principal reason her book was published.
6. Write as well as you read. Take writing courses. Rewrite. Form a writing group with other serious writers whose perspectives you trust. Reach out beyond the ED world so that you can see how your story is read by those who don’t already know what it’s like. If you can make them care what your story is about and what you have to say, that’s a very good sign for your book’s prospects. If they “don’t get it,” then ask what confuses or eludes them, and keep working until they do get it.
7. Write with purpose. This gets back to the insight issue, since insight and purpose are usually linked. But your insights are bound to keep growing as you write, while the purpose you begin with will probably remain unwavering – if it’s the right purpose for your story. Your purpose needs to be a gift you want to give your reader. It may be a call to action. It may be a new perspective that they can apply to their own life. My purpose with Solitaire was to help readers understand what it felt like to be inside the head of loved ones who were trapped in ED and to give them hope for recovery. At the time, no one had written with that particular purpose. Now hundreds have, so you need a different purpose. What do you have to tell the world about your experience that the world needs to know? This is hard, but crucial. Ask yourself why the world needs to know this? What will this awakening do to change the world? Why is that a good thing? How best can you write your story to achieve this end? Once you’ve got answers to these questions in focus, you’re ready to roll!