Pub Rants

Writing A Memoir Is Not Therapy

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STATUS: It’s been a little exciting today. I have a debut author releasing in the spring and we’ve gotten these just incredible blurbs from NYT bestselling authors. Not to mention, we saw exciting cover art today as well.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? RUNNING UP THAT HILL by Kate Bush

One of the biggest mistakes I see in query letters for the memoir is writers who spotlight how cathartic and therapeutic the writing of the work was and how they now need to share it with the world.

This is a big mistake. Why? Because writing a memoir is not therapy or shouldn’t be, so this is not a positive thing to spotlight. The truly terrific memoirists (ANGELA’S ASHES and THE GLASS CASTLE come to mind) understand that the writing of the work is an art form and only a certain amount of distance to the subject material can create that necessary objectivity so that the story can be crafted. Key word here is “crafted.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that some of these writers didn’t experience a positive benefit from taking what were harsh and extraordinary childhoods and putting those stories on paper. They probably did but that’s not therapy and what these memoirists actually understood is that readers aren’t interesting in any one person’s therapeutic story; these readers are interested in an inside look to a world they’ve never seen or have never imagined. A world that is unbelievable but true. A world that is unique but resonates with us. A story that captures a universal feeling and the reader senses the connection.

That’s what makes the memoir powerful. And if a writer doesn’t understand the difference of what I’m trying to explain here, he/she will probably never have a memoir published.

And whether the writer understands this or not is usually very obvious and clear in the query letters we receive.

It’s probably one of the biggest misunderstandings out there about this genre.

20 Responses

  1. Reid said:

    I write about personal experiences all of the time. It’s how I vent, and it’s good practice. Nobody ever sees those writings, though. I might go back later and use the experiences in similar situations, but only in the right context of character building.

    Eh, who am I kidding? I’ll use them if they don’t derail the story and they get a good laugh. The best experiences and our reactions are, by definition, good examples of characterization.

    You’re right, though, simply recalling an emotional moment can’t make a stranger empathic. You can use those feelings later, but only in the right circumstances.

    Love the blog! Enjoy your Kate Bush.

  2. The Bims said:

    Kristin, another great post. Like the woman from the conference you quoted yesterday – lots of people have had cancer/survived the death of a loved one/had a rotten childhood/insert favorite tragedy here. But it does take distance and objectivity to create a good story that people want to read, not just nod our heads in sympathy like our friends and family do.

    Memoir-as-therapy is also extremely difficult to critique, because you feel like you’re criticizing someone’s life, reducing their personal tragedy to lines on a page that can be redlined or written in a more interesting way.

    I agree with reid that personal experiences aboslutely inform my writing, and may show up in little snippets, exaggerated and fictionalized for my characters. But for the really sappy therapy kind of stuff? That’s why I love my journal!

    BTW, I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s memoir/diary, Hour of Gold, Hour of Lead. She kind of has the celebrity thing you mentioned, but she also writes about her experiences as a pilot and pilot’s wife (fascinating new world to many readers) and the experience of losing her son (awful, horriffic) without getting mired down in catharsis.

  3. B.E. Sanderson said:

    I’ve started a memoir on and off for years. I never thought of it as therapy, but rather a story that needs to be told. Few people who’ve experienced traumatic brain injury firsthand have are able to talk about it afterwards. I’ll write it someday. Thanks for these posts on memoirs. They’re very helpful.

  4. The Anti-Wife said:

    I have to disagree. Writing a memoir can definitely be therapeutic. The mistake people seem to make is in assuming this form of self-therapy is publishable. As you point out, unless it’s an unusual and compelling story terrifically told, no one will buy it.

    But it’s still therapeutic and, as many have noted, once written can be used as a basis for other projects. What better way to find the depth in your characters than to find the true depth in your own life.

  5. Don said:

    I’m with anti-wife, writing a memoir can be therapy. It’s just that publishing your therapy is almost always a bad idea. I figured that out when I was a callow 21-year old who spent a few weeks writing a piece of break-up fiction as a consequence of getting dumped at about the same time that I was reading The End of the Affair. Fortunately, once I was finished I wrote in my journal that while it might have been good therapy, it was lousy art. Graham Greene, on the other hand, managed to make his break-up fiction great art too.

  6. leann said:

    For me, writing is therapy. That’s all there is to it.

    Someday I might be able to create another character I can relate to as much as the one who lived through my same tragedy. But to start, I wrote what I knew.

    Will anyone ever want to publish my novel? Perhaps not. But writing it *was* therapeutic, and I think I was able to distance myself enough to give the story its own life, not just a carbon-copy of mine.

    In the end, though, it’s not *my* opinion that matters, is it?

  7. KingM said:

    I could see how and why writing a memoir could be therapeutic. All writing is, to a certain extent. That doesn’t mean you should put this in a query letter.

  8. Patrick McNamara said:

    I thin it’s a good idea to look at the memoirs that worked. There’s MAMA’S BANK ACCOUNT which is better known for the movie “I Remember Mama.” There’s also the false memoir such as HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.

  9. pjd said:

    Sometimes I wish I had a life worth writing a memoir about. Then I smack myself on the forehead and remember how lucky I’ve been.

  10. Carolyn Bahm said:

    Great post! You elegantly clarified the difference between journaling just to vent and writing a memoir that has some literary value. Think of what value the writing is to the reader, not to the writer. Helpful advice whether we’re writing or pitching. Thanks!

  11. Vicki said:

    When writing a memoir for therapeutic reason doesn’t it become more like your life journal?

    I do believe that it can be therapeutic to write the “memoir”. But to say that all memoirs should be published, not so much.

    My family continually asked me to write our families story. My answer is no, really no.

    For one I’m sure they wouldn’t like to see our lives in print (not saying that it would print – just they wouldn’t like to see their life open)

    Also, I do think that a memoir that someone wants to hopefully publish has to have that something extra, that edge that makes their life different from others. The rich and famous have this, it’s a given.

    Otherwise IMHO if someone has decided to write their memoir they may want to consider changing the names to protect the innocent so to speak and become a work of fiction as in some of Connie May Fowler’s work.

    Again just my thoughts.

  12. Anonymous said:

    Kristin, these two posts about memoir are fabulous. From all of us with mss. that sprawl across the table and onto the floor, in desperate need of a sharp dose of reality…thank you (damn it)!

  13. ORION said:

    Some of the scariest people I’ve met at conferences are those writing their memoirs. I keep on thinking they are looking at me calculatingly wondering whether if they add convicted murderer to their resume they have a better chance of getting published.
    I still watch my back…

  14. Anonymous said:

    I don’t think Kristin was saying that writing memoir wasn’t therapeutic (or couldn’t be). I believe she was trying to emphasize that memoirs that are publishable are those that are not written FOR that reason. A person writing a memoir that will eventually be published is someone who understands this is about craft — the memoir must have something in it for the reader.

    I agree with Reid, use your personal experiences to give life to your fiction. I don’t need to write memoir, I can infuse my stories with emotions, events, people from life.


  15. Anonymous said:

    On the off chance the memoir is different enough to pitch — say a realistic look at an exciting/poignant profession told through the eyes of someone in a generally “invisible” staff position — would presenting a fiction-style query followed by a non-fiction proposal (with rationale, promotion, competition, etc) be appropriate or convincing? Especially if no one has yet written about a popular profession from that particular staff position?

    Does — or can — platform elevate a memoir from a cathartic exercise to something more publishable?

    Or is it just wiser to turn the whole thing into a novel and pitch it that way instead?

  16. OpenChannel said:

    Um, yeah… memoir writing. Isn’t that what blogs are for? 🙂

    (And when you get 100,000 hits on your blog, then you could try to sell your memoir)

  17. Betsy said:

    I didn’t realize it was a “mistake” to deem memoir writing “therapeutic.” If a writer feels that, why is that in error? My memoir was excruciating to write. It was so painful I was reduced to tears quite often and wouldn’t have attempted it unless there was a journal I could refer to. Even with that benefit, it was exceedingly difficult to write without feeling the hurt that was so apparent at the time. Frankly, for a therapeutic exercise, I’d rather go shopping.

  18. octopusraptor said:

    While I believe writing is extremely therapeutic, I agree with you, Kristin. It is the memoirist’s responsibility to not simply throw their baggage into the world but show the reader the universality of their life and help the reader understand their own issues and such. Art is about enhancing life, not recreating it.

    Good post, dear. :]

  19. Anonymous said:

    Kristen your take on the memoir was pleasant for me to read. I wasn’t ready for years to write a memoir because I was so in it (the past and pain).

    After hooking up with writers and through such organizations as the Willamette Writers in Portland, Oregon then reading memoirs voraciously for 9 months (again what great fun, these wonderful truth telling people who put pen to paper). Then one night I simply opened my laptop and it began rolling out, without pain or struggle.

    It was joyful, fun…I loved the research…more doors opened…more secrets revealed which then pulled me to the macro level of how our family secrets came to be. Wow, stunning pieces to the puzzles that spanned the globe. And some stunning reviews from friends, former classmates and their husbands and one stranger at a farmers market who overhead me talking.

    I’m pitching in August to 3 literary agents so I am doing my pitching research; found your site as well as others.

    It is affirming how I am telling my tale appears to be on track. Thank you.

    I give a nod to Frank and Malachy McCourt in my manuscript. Frank taught me the power of humor so as to not lose the reader. I planned to email and thank him. Frank died before I could do that.