Moving Toward Memoir

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susangpyp

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Hi all: I know "calling my memoir a memoir" question has been asked over and over and I've read through many threads (thank you all for your contribution.)

I originally thought of writing my book as "based on a true story" fiction. It happened between 1975 and 1977 and the main characters have all passed (except me of course) but the story I want to tell is one that those who were there, and are still alive, don't know anything about.

They thought of me an entirely different way than they will think of me after this is published. When I spoke briefly to the sister of the person who will be the main character, she said, "I need some time with this (information.)" and I never heard from her again. She had been so anxious to talk to me until I said, "This happened...." (and it was just a very small inkling of the story) and then she went poof!

The story, long since frozen inside me, came pouring out of me last year after learning of the death of one of the main characters. I think that as long as he was alive, I was never going to acknowledge this other thing that happened.

It's not a pretty story, but it just poured out. As it was pouring out, I had the timeline pretty screwed up which is when I thought, "I'll just write it as fiction 'based on a true story.'" But I have letters and journals and other things that I either didn't know I had or didn't want to read. So extra "memories" came through and they were pretty well documented at the time of when all this occurred.

There are not a lot of surviving family members of the main character but they had no idea. It's not anything horrible, but it's news. Most of the story is about me and the three people who are deceased.

So I'm rethinking it as memoir. I don't think the family would be thrilled with the book but I don't see anything actionable about it. The men in the family had the absolute worst reputations around and I don't talk about the women (the family members who have survived) except as minor characters with very glowing reputations.

My agent is retiring and doesn't rep fiction or memoir anyway, so I need to query new agents and want to get it right as to what it is. I'm leaping from self-help non-fiction to this and then I have another book in the works which is a bit memoir/non-fiction/self-help. My query letter will focus on one but I don't know if my previous publishing experience will help or hurt so I want to get the genre right

Thoughts? Thank you!
Susan
 
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Cathy C

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Since you write NF self-help, another question you need to ask is whether your current publisher needs to be part of the conversation. Does the memoir include any sort of information that may make a reader think twice about your advice in your other books? It's not something everyone needs to consider when writing a memoir, but if you hope to have an ongoing relationship with your current publisher, you might want to take a moment to think about the impact.

If you believe (true or not) that readers might have an adverse reaction, then think about whether you can be true to yourself by making it fiction under a pen name.

I don't have an answer, unfortunately. You're the one who will know if the people you help with your other books will think the revelations are a big deal or not. :Shrug:

Good luck. Memoirs can be freeing, but the impact can be hard on those who are surprised by the content. :Hug2:
 

Siri Kirpal

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Cathy's input is good.

Here's some pros and cons:

Fiction: The I-can't-believe-this-happened moments work in memoir. They're harder to pull off in fiction. Fiction writing has to be more in scenes--much more show than tell. The narrative arc has to read like a novel, because it will be a novel.

Memoir: Those unbelievable moments are the stuff of memoir. Narrative summary is not only more acceptable in memoir, but almost a necessity, though you need scenes too. A less-stellar plot and narrative arc are more acceptable in memoir.

That said, fiction is typically the easier sell than memoir...unless your story has huge universal appeal or is very au courant. Many more agents handle fiction than handle memoir.

Writing it as memoir may be easier, as you simply write what you remember or can find documentation for. But writing it as fiction gives you the leeway to change things in a more artistic pattern.

As far as the legalities are concerned: if the chief players other than yourself are all dead, you really don't need to be too concerned. But as Cathy said, do consider the impact on your nonfiction books as well as your impact on those who do survive.

Hope that helps.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal, a memoirist who couldn't write the story as a novel
 

susangpyp

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My life story (with the exception of the subject of this post) is the preface to my 1st non-fiction book. It includes my years in foster care, being adopted into an alcoholic, abusive home and a string of abusive relationships until I healed from that via therapy, conferences, support groups and going back to school to becoming a therapist and then an attorney. After putting a wonderful life together for myself and my children, I met the love of my life and we enjoyed 15 wonderful years before he passed from brain cancer 4 years ago (2 months after my 1st book was published.)

My life story has been one of overcoming adversity and is, basically, "out there" with the exception of this (almost unbelievable) episode. As insane the rest of my early (pre-30) life is, this tops all of them and is a sadly beautiful love story.

I am a certified grief counselor and this story is one that came tumbling out after the death of the last main character. It was not something I wanted to happen; it wasn't something I welcomed or expected.

The story was frozen in my subconscious all these years. The events were so traumatic to me then and currently that I employed that which I encourage my readers to do: write about it. I also say you are as sick as your secrets and this is, basically, my one remaining secret.

My philosophy to my readers and clients is that grief that is not expressed does not go away. This story is a fairly incredible representation of that and how the mind works.

I've shared it with a few friends and clients and each has encouraged me to publish it.

Since starting my blog in 2006, I've repeated that my life is an open book and have been very honest on my blog and in my books about all my trauma, trials and tribulations. This is one part of my life story that I am currently "working through" and I have personal reasons for wanting to publish it as a memoir.
 

Siri Kirpal

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Ah! In that case, I'm guessing that your earlier books will help sell the memoir and very possibly, vice versa. Go for it!

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

susangpyp

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Thank you! I appreciate the opportunity to "think out loud" and get some feedback.
 

Cathy C

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I agree with Siri. In fact, have you considered approaching your current editor to say the same thing? Even if the publisher doesn't handle the genre, they might have a sister company that does, or your editor might have a friend at another house that does work with memoirs. It would be worth your editor's time to help, because the platform gained could drastically increase sales of the previous books.

Also, finding an agent with a nibble on the line, or better yet, an offer, is a much easier prospect for new agent shopping
 

susangpyp

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I've thought more about this today and am leaning toward "based on a true story" fiction but I am not sure why you would go one way or the other.
 

Raison

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I don't think most readers understand the difference between memoir and "based on a true story." They see both as true, and you'll be judged based on that.

I do understand your hesitations, though. I've written the bulk of my memoir, but I'm still trying to figure out how to handle the situations where living people could be affected by what is written. As with your characters, my main characters are deceased, but they still have living family members. In my case, though, it's not that anything I've written will be particularly surprising to them; they just wouldn't want the information out there.
 

Siri Kirpal

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In cases where someone could get seriously hurt (ie killed) by my revelation, I've left the information out. In most cases where I don't have permission, I've changed the names. (The exception is teachers who are portrayed favorably.) I've got a little note at the beginning that some names and a few details are changed. I don't mention that a whole lot is left out; that goes without saying.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

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