Pub Rants

But What Is Your Story?

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STATUS: Is it really three in the afternoon already? It just can’t be…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? GONNA MAKE YOU SWEAT by C&C Music Factory

Last but not least, I have one last word on the memoir and then I’m going to rant about something else for a while.

Here’s the last point that I want to make. Often when writers pitch their memoirs, they often focus on the fantastic/dramatic element that, in their mind, is the unique impetus that drives the story, such as the disabled sibling (or the genius sibling), the psychotic mother (that’s a popular one), the drug addicted brother, father, sister or whoever–you name it, the daughter who accused the father of abuse (and it’s the mother’s memoir) that I’m often left asking, “but what is your story.”

I have often asked this question to aspiring memoirists and have stumped them. And the answer might be that they don’t really have one—and hence, what they have won’t really work as a memoir.

A simple question but an important one if you plan to write in this genre.

10 Responses

  1. Reid said:

    That’s another problem with writing your own memoirs for publication, the lack of self-disconnect prevents you from knowing what’s interesting to other people.

    We forget to tell you about our journey to manhood and the conflicts we got through, and instead focus on the nutbag relatives and friends that have become hilarious to us.

    Kramer wasn’t the main character on “Seinfeld” for a reason, you know.

    Thanks for the blog!

  2. Johanna said:

    I love your rants, Kristin. They’re so much fun! A topic I’d love to see you address is children’s fiction.

    Maybe I am unique in this area, but I find that whenever I tell people I’m a writer they often jump in with “I’m a writer, too! I want to get into writing children’s picture books!” Or they tell me that their mother, brother, sister, best friend, etc. is a wannabe children’s book author.

    And, of course, they’d like to know if there’s any chance I could help. I’m always excited to meet other writers, and I always do try to help out, but I know next to nothing about children’s publishing. We’re not talking about young adult here — these people are interested in doing something on par with “The Cat in the Hat.”

    Usually, if you talk to them a little longer you discover they have no writing background and don’t even enjoy reading. But they want to write children’s picture books — badly!

    Forgive me for being a cynic, but I have a theory on this. I think people assume that writing a children’s book is a quick way to get rich. You know, like all you have to do is scrawl out: “The dog and the frog sat down on the log” and mail it into the publisher, let someone else illustrate it, and sit back and rake in the millions.

    I honestly think a lot of these people do not even enjoy writing and think of children’s publishing as an easy way to make fast cash. They probably figure they can write a book in under an hour and then, somehow, become the next Dr. Seuss.

    I feel like such a jerk for ranting about this. And I should say, as a disclaimer, that I have met some wonderful children’s book authors.

  3. The Anti-Wife said:

    When you’ve suffered from trauma – especially as a child – it’s often easier to talk about it in relation to the other people in your life. Projecting our suffering onto them or making them responsible for our crappy life provides us with a false sense of security and makes us seem okay. The problem with this approach is that it never allows us to reach the root of our pain and that’s where we have to go to start the true healing process.

    I think that’s why some people write their stories using others as main characters. It helps to diffuse the focus from the work they still need to do within themselves. What they don’t realize is the story will be much richer if they find the origin of their unhappiness. Too often we talk about what we “think” of the events in our lives rather than relating how they “feel” but it’s the feelings that provide the depth and allow us to touch others on a very personal level.

  4. k said:

    I write for children (well, I write YA) and I know a whole lot of “real” children’s books authors, and I totally second your rant, johanna! Nothing bugs me more than people who decide all willy nilly to write for children cause they think it’s “easy.”

  5. Anonymous said:

    OK, having read umpteen children’s books in the past 10 years, I want to know what’s so hard about it. Is it any harder than writing poetry? I mean, it has to be efficient. It has to be age-appropriate in vocabulary, structure, and plot.

    Beyond the fact that the slush pile is probably an order of magnitude larger than for grownup fiction, what makes writing children’s books so difficult?

    It’s an honest question.

  6. MTV said:


    I’d be curious as to your opinion. Clearly, for the reasons you cited, a memoir is best left as a memoir not a novel. To me the value of a memoir is that it is “real” at some level. It actually happened to someone. If nothing else in terms of the interpretation of their life. They experienced (or supressed the experience of) emotions, processed them and stored them away in memory.

    My question is this – I’ve written a movie that is basically a memoir. The theme centers around how disfunctionality around a person can be a productive force in their life. Functionally, it’s about a guy who meets his half sister after 40 years and how that happens. One of the main characters is a young boy who grows up on the streets of NY. The focus on the young boy makes the story very touching, as he is very precocious and constantly shifts the viewpoints of adults around him. It’s fun to see how his simple questions provoke the adults to think more deeply about their life.

    I’m having a tough sell with the movie script, so far. Mostly, just don’t have the “the right” contacts for this. Would it be worth it to pursue a book memoir instead?

    If you think there’s a market I can provide the particulars.


  7. Anonymous said:

    Thanks for your clarification of the difference between a memoir and an autobiography. I had someone approach me today about ghostwriting their memoir and could see very quickly that this person had not settled on the single narrative arc that would make it a memoir. What they really wanted was to have people interested in every aspect of the life story — which makes it a far tougher sell, in my mind.
    Great blog. Thanks.

  8. Hauling Bananas said:

    People are very boring as a general rule. Yet to each individual, the experiences they have amassed are exciting– it is what they know.

    I think memoirs are a dead end, unless you are someone famous or fabulously successful. No one wants to hear the tale of a nobody. Leave them to the illuminati… if you’ve scooped ice cream for a living or grew up on a farm in Iowa, keep it to yourself.


  9. Anonymous said:

    For the love of monkeys, I can’t figure out what’s so damned special about the internet! Blogs, webpages, forums. A bunch of self-congratulatory simpletons blasting their opinions into the anonymous electronic void like farts into polyester pant-suits. Leave your computers and venture into the real world, dullards! No one cares for your opinions!

  10. Pino the Juggler said:

    Back in my home country, I juggled coconuts for the entertainment of my social betters, for the American equivalent of nine cents a day. It was enough to feed my family of seven three olives a day, with a scrap of bacon and some cumquat oil. Anyway, during the March coup (the country always changed regimes in March for some reason, always with a coup of some sort) I was contracted to juggle coconuts in the court of the new rulers, for eighteen cents a day! How proud I was… but they wanted the coconuts hollowed out and filled with deadly fire ants, to make for a more humorous spectacle.

    I juggled my deadly coconuts for seven weeks, until my stung and blistered fingers could hoist the coconuts no longer. At the end of the seven weeks, I hurled my coconuts at the prime minister and made my escape from the palace. A month later I found myself in New Jersey, smuggled into the United States hidden in the abdominal tract of a Panda bear being transferred to the Trenton zoo.

    Should I write a memoir of my experiences?