The Problem with Memoir

In “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell,” Jane Friedman offers seven reasons why a memoir won’t move copies. To paraphrase:

  • It’s the first “legit” writing you’ve ever attempted.
  • It’s an act of catharsis (a. k. a. emotional vomit).
  • It’s a glorified diary.
  • It’s a chronological autobiography.
  • It’s a series of unrelated anecdotes from your life.
  • It’s someone else’s memoir.
  • It’s been done.
  • I’ve come close to making almost every one of those mistakes.

After a significantly distressing period of my life, I considered writing a memoir about that time. Had I followed through, I would have committed sins #1, 2, 3, and 7 from that list.
Egregious memoir error #7 deserves more explanation. Jane writes, “This is the hardest thing to tell a writer: ‘Sorry, but your story of addiction or cancer survival or loss of a child just doesn’t seem that special.’” That’s a brutal publishing truth, but the reason it’s true is not that the story isn’t meaningful in itself; it’s that hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of stories are submitted to publishers every year.
However, I would still argue that it can be good to write those stories and self-publish for family, friends, and posterity, but don’t pin your bestselling hopes on such a memoir (unless you’re famous or an extremely talented writer who knows how to craft a compelling memoir).
Jane states the problem with memoir so well: “People have a hard time achieving any distance between the meaning and importance of their life’s events and the commercial market that might exist for it.”
So, write your memoir. Let your writing be cathartic. Record your life story. Commit every sin on this list. Just don’t expect more than what’s realistic if you choose to seek an agent or self-publish. (And if you’re serious about writing a memoir, definitely read Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir.)
Have you committed any of this memoir mistakes?
Or, what’s the best memoir you’ve ever read?

One thought on “The Problem with Memoir

  1. Feel like I just lost a significant amount of wind from my sails! However a book that has came to my attention a few times now feels like a must read. Thanks for the information.

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