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How do you know if your life is interesting enough for a memoir?

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paqart

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For what it's worth, the way it is written is also a measure of your own interest in the subject matter. In my case, I have been asked dozens of times (maybe close to a hundred) to write a memoir of my childhood years. I have tried on a number of occasions to do it, but I don't find the material as interesting as other people do, or not for the same reason. Here is a tiny snippet of what I will not be writing about:

I have moved 56 times and attended 26 schools in my life. Most of the moves took place before I was sixteen years old. This is because my single mother parent was schizophrenic. She had paranoid delusions that she was being stalked by past boyfriends, the C.I.A., and any number of other bad guys. I became accustomed to being pulled out of school without notice, driving to a new town through the night, then enrolling in a new school in a new town the next day. Sometimes, my sister and I had new names to prevent our pursuers from finding my mother. My mother tried committing suicide more than once, including on one occasion by trying to drive head-on into oncoming traffic with my sister and I in the car.

My childhood was full of danger but also love. Our mother did love us, but had no idea how dangerous her decisions were. She let predators into our homes as boyfriends, more than one of whom abused my sister. She could be a very charming person and was physically attractive, but she also had a tendency toward alcoholism and a fiery temper. This led to the loss of job after job. Sometimes it was because "the other secretaries are replacing my typing with their own bad examples and then blaming it on me", and others because something gave her a fright and she'd make a snap decision to leave. She was courted by several wealthy men, but she became spooked in every case and we spent our time together in poverty. Sometimes, we were homeless.

On one occasion, my mother accepted the gift of a gun from one of her four ex-husbands. She once saw me in her room to say good night and almost killed me with it. My sister also came close to shooting me with it, though to this day I don't know why. I suspect it was because she expected me to protect her from our mom's boyfriends, though at the time I had no idea anything was going on. Later, my sister tried to strangle our mother to death, screaming "Don't you see? We have to kill her! Don't you realize how dangerous she is?" Needless to say, we had multiple encounters with the police coming to take my sister away, or to separate my sister and I from our mother. Our mom had a sixth sense for these the latter occasions, and always managed to clear out before the authorities arrived. My sister on the other hand, knows what it is like to be questioned by the police after almost shooting a police officer who broke down our door to save me.

After many adventures like this, and possibly because of the strangling incident, the police found our long lost father and we went to live with him. He was totally unlike our mother. Living with him allowed my sister and I to see just how different our lives had been from the norm, though I think she was always more aware of this than I was.

So that is the "boring" story that I have realized I cannot write. The reason is that the only thing interesting about it (to me) is that other people seem to think of it as fascinating. I enjoy watching the surprise on people's faces when I tell them how, for instance, my mother's penchant for nude beaches once led to me being sucked into an undertow that left me in a whirlpool a hundred yards or more off the Monterey coast. My mom, totally naked, bounced her way along the shore with her equally naked boyfriend, trying to find a way to save me. A conveniently placed spit of rock did the trick, from which my mom tossed her huge handmade denim bag, maintaining her grip on the strap. I grabbed the bag and was pulled to safety, as all her many prescription pill bottles and other things floated into the whirlpool and into oblivion.

The memoir I will write is about how I founded a successful computer graphics program at a small European university while I earned my PhD at King's College, London. That story is more interesting to me because it involved a challenge I understood: how can students be trained well in an industry that is notoriously ill-served by educational institutions? The process was "organic" to put it nicely, but by always keeping the student's interests in mind, our program developed a solid reputation in industry as one of the only schools in the world that was capable of turning out industry-ready graduates. At one European conference, a representative of Sony's game division said we were the only school in the world that knew how to solve that particular riddle.

I was deeply involved in every aspect of the school's creation, suffered from our missteps, witnessed every correction, and felt legitimate pride when our students went on to successful careers in industry. To me, the greatest reward I have ever received for anything I've ever done was a basket of flowers from the sister of one of these students. They had lost their parents, and the sister supported her brother by employing him at her small restaurant as he went through school. When he sat down after receiving his diploma, the man sitting next to him, a hiring manager from a major studio, handed him a contract on the spot. His sister burst into tears at that moment, their mutual hard struggle over.

So, to me, an interesting memoir must contain a level of commitment to the material that extends beyond whatever salacious qualities it may possess. I knew a man who wrote a book about a class action lawsuit that was fascinating. An elderly Holocaust survivor had turned confidence man and had bilked other Holocaust survivors of millions of dollars. How could such a man, who knew the horrors his victims had survived, subject them to such craven villainy? My acquaintance had all the material he needed to write a fascinating story, but in the end it was flat. There are some amazing memoirs about the Cultural Revolution in China and the advance of Communism across Asia. Some are more interesting than others. Many are filled with terrifying events experienced by small children. One of the better ones (in my opinion) "Falling Leaves" contains several of the dramatic elements found in other books in this genre, but the events depicted are notably less severe than those experienced by the authors of other books. In comparison, the author of Falling Leaves is relatively well-looked after, but she manages to create a mesmerizing memoir out of the dynamic between her and her French-Vietnamese stepmother, who has turned her father away. That book, in my opinion, is less about the Cultural Revolution than it is about a vain scheming woman and how she denied a stepdaughter her father's love. It is quite touching, but the backdrop of striking events could be stripped from it and it would remain a beautifully written intensely satisfying book.
 

Melty

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If your life sounds exactly like a chapter in the Bible's book of revelations... you know it's interesting enough!
 

Uitar9

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"You should write a book."

When you hear this ^^

Until finding this site, I had no idea "memoir" was even a genre. I'll often spend 3 or 4 pages on a moment in time.

I've been writing for more than 25 years. Im 65 now. I watched my mom write like this for 20 years. I've written a novel, have anther two started. Spend an hour covering off life experiences. I'm a binge writer (similar to my drinking when I drink). Nothing published.

I submitted the novel one time. Received an immediate response suggesting I follow their submission guidelines. Not overly good with guidelines.

I've been hearing "you should write a book" more regularly. Apparently I'm a story teller.

Perhaps with upcoming retirement, learning the business side of writing will help me keep the brain active.
 

sandree

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I have a short memoir already written but only shared with family and friends because it is so personal and exposes people in my community. Is it kosher to rewrite something like this, changing names and locations and then put it out under a pen name? I have been thinking about this...
 

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Look forward to hearing from the more experienced folks regarding your question.

I am lucky. If I ever get to publication, 50 years and a continent should protect the innocent.

My take: if privacy is a concern to you, but want to get that stuff out of your head, change it to protect their privacy, keep it entertaining and call it fiction.

JMHO
 

Siri Kirpal

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Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I'm not a lawyer, so take what I say with a grain or three of salt. What you suggest won't necessarily get you out of legal hot water; however, it's your life and your work. You can also write and not publish or rewrite the thing as fiction.

But do write what you feel moved to write. You can learn some amazing things doing it. So it's worth it just from a personal point of view. But publishing is a different animal.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 
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RookieWriter

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This is a hard question I think because everyone does have a story to tell. I've written some really good chapters that are interesting (i believe), but my whole story is not interesting. My story covers a four-year span where I had to face something extremely difficult and would never be the same because of it. I like the idea of this memoir very much, but the last chapter I wrote was boring. I will probably cut or rewrite it, but I can already see this happening again. The book was a suggestion from one of my professors based on an essay I wrote for class on this same part of my life. I do believe the essay was good, but how do I know if it is really enough for a book? The essay was 5k or 6k words and not boring at all. But maybe I just don't know what's boring or not when it comes to this story. How do you avoid being boring? How do you know if your boring? And how do you know if what you are focusing on in your memoir is interesting enough for a book-length piece of work?

If you don't think it's interesting then just make stuff up.
 

mewellsmfu

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Because if you make things up, it's not a memoir. A memoir is nonfiction and that is another way of saying not fiction. And once you put your name on it and get it out there, if you claim it's a memoir and you've fabricated any part of it, you will soon discover that Twitter isn't the only place where mistakes can come back to haunt you.
 

CathleenT

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I've gotten around the whole "is my life interesting enough for a memoir" thing by writing short story memoirs and posting them on my blog, and/or sending them to my email list.

The real problem with life as story material, IMO, is that it's very poorly organized. Nobody was overseeing my life to ensure that it broke down into a three-act structure. And God help you if you want to find an overarching theme in it other than survival.

But I did write a story of the time I survived a plane crash. And scuba-diving with a Mako shark. A funny story from when my daughter was a preschooler, and a tale about rescuing pigeons while working construction. The sorts of things you can tell at parties.

Anyway, people actually want to read this stuff in your blog or newsletter. And keeping it episodic means reducing the size of the task (no overall story structure).

If nothing else, it's a way to practice while you build up source material. When you get enough "chapters," maybe you could think of a way to organize it, perhaps as a series of shorts a la James Herriott.

Just thought I'd put this out there, since it's working for me. Stories are on my blog (under the short stories tab) if anyone's interested in how I did this. :)

ETA: Sorry, sandree--I know that's not a direct reply to your privacy concerns. But maybe working on some shorter tales that don't matter as much if they're shared might let you know if you want to continue with the project, and if so, in what form.

As far as a pen name goes...I dunno. Are you going to go through all that work to maintain a single book authorship? Fictionalizing might be the way to go.

And you could always write the stuff and wait for people to, uh, predecease you. My father was a real piece of work, but he's dead now, and that frees me as regards to how I speak of him. I don't have much desire to tell those stories, but I could now, if I wanted to.
 
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nadja1972

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Have you read Maggie O'Farrell's memoir "I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death"? Each chapter is a story about a time in her life that she could have died/nearly died. It skips around chronologically but feels coherent somehow. These days I think it might be easier to sell that kind of memoir. I had agents tell me they didn't want to read my manuscript unless it "did something unconventional with the genre." So maybe you don't need to worry about the three-act structure. Maybe a collection of "survival" essays could work even better?

I've gotten around the whole "is my life interesting enough for a memoir" thing by writing short story memoirs and posting them on my blog, and/or sending them to my email list.

The real problem with life as story material, IMO, is that it's very poorly organized. Nobody was overseeing my life to ensure that it broke down into a three-act structure. And God help you if you want to find an overarching theme in it other than survival.

But I did write a story of the time I survived a plane crash. And scuba-diving with a Mako shark. A funny story from when my daughter was a preschooler, and a tale about rescuing pigeons while working construction. The sorts of things you can tell at parties.

Anyway, people actually want to read this stuff in your blog or newsletter. And keeping it episodic means reducing the size of the task (no overall story structure).

If nothing else, it's a way to practice while you build up source material. When you get enough "chapters," maybe you could think of a way to organize it, perhaps as a series of shorts a la James Herriott.

Just thought I'd put this out there, since it's working for me. Stories are on my blog (under the short stories tab) if anyone's interested in how I did this. :)

ETA: Sorry, sandree--I know that's not a direct reply to your privacy concerns. But maybe working on some shorter tales that don't matter as much if they're shared might let you know if you want to continue with the project, and if so, in what form.

As far as a pen name goes...I dunno. Are you going to go through all that work to maintain a single book authorship? Fictionalizing might be the way to go.

And you could always write the stuff and wait for people to, uh, predecease you. My father was a real piece of work, but he's dead now, and that frees me as regards to how I speak of him. I don't have much desire to tell those stories, but I could now, if I wanted to.
 

nadja1972

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If you look a few threads down in this forum, you'll find one about this called: "Why can't a memoir author be anonymous?" Some people thought it was doable to publish under a pen name, but I think it sounds like a tricky path. If the manuscript is strong enough, you might be able to find an agent who could help figure out how to deal with privacy concerns?

I have a short memoir already written but only shared with family and friends because it is so personal and exposes people in my community. Is it kosher to rewrite something like this, changing names and locations and then put it out under a pen name? I have been thinking about this...
 

sandree

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If you look a few threads down in this forum, you'll find one about this called: "Why can't a memoir author be anonymous?" Some people thought it was doable to publish under a pen name, but I think it sounds like a tricky path. If the manuscript is strong enough, you might be able to find an agent who could help figure out how to deal with privacy concerns?

Thanks - off to find the other thread.
 

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Thanks for this CT. Right now, each of my personal episodes are quite disjointed chronologically. An episode pops up, and unto paper it goes. I'm most productive during vacation periods. The time off seems to slow my brain down from worldly matters and history bubbles up. Feels like a nostalgia moment. Your post struck a nerve with stories you can tell at parties. Lately it has been the various sex, drugs and rock and roll period from 68 to about 73. Like a crazy Saturday afternoon before a local concert. My friend Jerome and I smoked a joint, dropped a tab of lsd and we visited the computer lab where he ran his batch card program. That computer and printer filled a large room. Everything went off with out a hitch. Then we visited the genetics lab where I was breeding fruit flies......unfortunately the acid had kicked in and within minutes the flies were free, flying around the room with two crazed hippies trying to capture them by hand. Of course it was a warm day and the windows were open. Needless to say we gave up on that project. I still see these episodes as a great life experience. Some tell me it was destructive behaviour. Regardless, it is great practice putting this stuff down with pen and paper.
 

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When it comes to memoir, no life is boring except that the writing makes it so.
 

Bufty

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When it comes to memoir, no life is boring except that the writing makes it so.

Nobody's life is boring per se. Omit the boring bits. How do you know or guess a particular episode is boring? Just a suggestion - change the names and imagine you read it in someone else's memoir.
 
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