Memoirs are big business in the publishing world. At this very moment, scores of celebrities, politicians, and just plain folk with remarkable experiences to share are captivating readers with their life stories. Many of these authors have gained fame, fortune, and a new life trajectory as a result of their literary efforts.
So, what about you? Should you write a memoir? Maybe. There are many good reasons to recount your life story, even if you don’t sell a single copy or gain a reader beyond your circle of friends and family. Indeed, you should really be focused on an audience of one – yourself.
Writing down your life experiences can be very therapeutic, according to mental health experts. The act of getting it all down on paper can help the writer make sense of their life, identify patterns, and put traumatic events in perspective.
Putting difficult experiences into words can reduce stress, ease depression and even improve cognitive function, according to the experts. These benefits flow from writing’s ability to help you convert difficult emotions and images into memories that you can structure, organize and contextualize. Through writing, a tidal wave of feelings can be broken down into manageable pieces that can be processed and resolved to allow you to come to terms with them.
For that to happen, however, you must be extremely honest about events in your life and your behavior over the years. That’s sometimes hard to do if you are writing in hopes of publishing your book and getting a movie deal. Concern about how you might appear to the wider world can make you omit or gloss over things that make you look bad.
You must also be honest about the central players in your life, which requires a willingness to provide a full picture of those people – both good and bad.
A word here about motivation. Memoir coach, Marion Roach Smith, teaches that memoirs are often started, perhaps unconsciously, with one of three purposes: revenge, betrayal or mercy. She believes mercy is the only healthy reason to tell your story. The objective of your efforts should be healing, not hurting – to help yourself come to terms with your past, identify behaviors you’d like to change, and ideally, forgive those who hurt or wronged you over the years.
The memoir writing process can be emotionally difficult, especially for those who have experienced serious trauma or hardship in their lives. Revisiting those incidents or times is ultimately therapeutic. But the process will initially stir up all sorts of negative feeling, such fear, sadness, and regret. Those emotions can linger for some time after you step away from the keyboard. Be prepared for those reactions and give some thought to how you will take care of yourself while writing your story.
Would-be memoirists who hope to publish their story or otherwise share it with others also face the question of how their work will be received by those closest to them. How will family and friends react to your personal revelations? Will those portrayed in the story take offense at your depiction of them? These very understandable concerns can lead a writer to be less-than-honest or leave out critical people or events. As you tweak your final draft, remember that the power of your story is in its theme, not in particular incidents. If it is possible to convey your message without telling a particular story that may be problematic, you are free to do so. Hey, it’s your life, right?
Of course, if you are writing only for yourself, this is a non-issue.
If you do hope to publish your memoir, be prepared for rejection. The book industry is ferociously competitive and decisions are made for business reasons. Never forget that a publisher’s lack of interest isn’t a commentary on the value of your life and story. It simply reflects that executive’s belief that she won’t make enough money off your book.
As with any great undertaking, getting started may seem like the hardest part. No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway referred to facing the empty page as “riding the white bull.” But it’s not really that hard. Aspiring writers are told, “write what you know.” You know your life story. Open that laptop and let it flow. Don’t angst over structure, grammar or punctuation for now. Just write. You’ll be surprised how easy it comes. And how good it feels.