Please don’t write that memoir

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Writing for Your Life September flyer

Sometimes people ask me for advice about getting published, finding an agent, and other writing-related questions. Sometimes they even listen to that advice. But I’ve learned that they rarely listen to a particular piece of advice I consistently give to those who want to publish a memoir: Just. Don’t.

Or at least, don’t do it yet. Don’t have it be your first book.

Depressing, huh? No one wants to hear this, but I have some good reasons for it. I’m going to teach about these during my section of the nine-webinar course that Writing for Your Life is putting on, beginning September 13. It’s only $99, which is an incredibly low price given how many sessions there are and how many great authors and publishers are going to be part of it (Rachel Held Evans! Father James Martin! And RNS’s own Jonathan Merritt!)

But I’ll give you a preview right now of the advice no one ever listens to. You’re welcome.

  • Memoir is hard. Much harder than it looks. You’ll need to work up to it. Writing a memoir should be so easy, right? All this stuff happened to you. You were there. You just need to put it down on paper. . . . Only when you do sit down to put it on paper, you’re plagued with questions (or you should be if you are reflective enough to be writing a memoir). How much should I include? (Not everything.) How do I protect other people’s privacy? (Very carefully.) How should I structure it? (Like a novel, with a clear beginning, middle, and end; and a central conflict that drives the story.)
  • Nobody cares about you. I’m sorry to say it out loud. But let’s face facts: if you are a first-time author, nobody knows who you are outside your immediate circle of friends, co-workers, and family. And if that’s the only group that will care about your memoir, that’s not going to be enough to interest a traditional publisher. Why not instead build a reputation as an author and establish a readership that would be interested in your life, and then try to write and publish your memoir?
  • An author’s skin is still pretty thin with a first book. When you’re publishing your first book, you will haunt Amazon and Goodreads for reviews, and your self-esteem will rise and fall as people love or hate it (or— worse but far more common—just ignore it). You will actually take to heart every clueless or mean thing that those trolls say who are still living in their parents’ basements and posting diatribes in their underwear. How much more is this vulnerability amplified when your first book is your memoir! Now, it’s not just your inaugural book that is awaiting public judgment, but your life, your family relationships, your choices. It’s all exposed to the world. Wouldn’t it be great to develop some rhino skin in advance?

So there you go: several solid reasons to wait to publish your memoir. You can grow in your craft, build an audience, and toughen up your sensitive writerly skin on a few practice books while, all along, you polish your memoir into something remarkable.

In my hour-long webinar, I’ll be outlining these reasons to wait, but also (because—did I mention?—no one listens to that advice and wants to get to the good stuff about how to do it) teaching people some great tips on structuring a memoir and writing for your target audience. (Lesson #1 on that score: your memoir is not for everyone.)

If you’ve got a book inside you and you want some guidance about the best ways to shepherd it to publication, I hope you’ll join us this fall for Writing for Your Life’s excellent series. You can register here.