Thinking About Writing That Memoir? Read This First
There are so many ways to share your personal story. One of the most audacious is to write a book. I know this, because I published my memoir in 2018, entitled ENJOYING THE RIDE: Two Generations of Tragedy and Triumph. Let’s take a high-level look at the steps involved.
Do you have what it takes?
Ask yourself if you have the aptitude, initiative, drive, passion, support, and time to spend on this project. If not, save yourself the hassle and find other ways to enjoy the next few years.
Learn the craft
Unless you’re already an author, or unless you have recently completed your Master of Fine Arts degree (like my friend, Renee), you must learn the craft of writing, or more precisely, the craft of writing a book. As an engineer, I not only couldn't write compelling prose, but I had to unlearn the technical writing skills I had honed so carefully for 25 years. It turns out that people who read for pleasure don’t want an accounting of the facts. They want to be entertained, moved, transported, and if possible, profoundly affected.
Online courses, workshops, and more
To get up to speed, I took advantage of online courses, workshops offered by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and experience gained by writing at my blog, EnjoyingtheRide.com. I also joined a local writers’ group, where we critiqued one another’s material every month. There are so many ways to learn the craft. Choose several.
Establish a platform
Unless you are already famous, you need to build a platform. Introduce yourself to the world so that someone other than your mother will care about reading your book. I established my platform primarily through blogging, but also through interviews and activities in various MS organizations. I know of people with such advanced writing skills that they skipped this step, but to be safe, I recommend platform building.
Compile your story
For the first four years of my disability retirement, I built a collection of autobiographical essays. At least half of my book came from these blog posts. I modified the posts, and I filled in with new material. Because the first third of my book depicted my childhood with a quadriplegic mother, I needed to research her life as well. By the time I began writing my book, I had lots of material from which to draw.
Take an inventory of any journals, personal essays, or interviews that you have compiled over the years. It may give you a head start.
Structure your book
Autobiographies cover a person’s life from the beginning to (nearly) the end, whereas memoirs typically cover only a slice of the subject’s life. Because I wanted to write about both my childhood with my mother and my adult life with MS, my book was almost autobiographical in scope. Most folks with a condition like MS, however, will write about life just before the onset, and then write about experiences with the disease. Sometimes memoirs cover decades, like mine. Other times a memoir might take a deeper dive into a shorter slice of life, maybe only weeks or months long. It’s important to decide early in the process just how you’ll structure your book.
Write, rewrite, and rewrite again
At this point, the preparations are over, and the real work begins. You sit down and write. Then you rewrite and massage and streamline again and again until the pages sing. By the time I started this phase, I already suffered from advanced MS, so I paced myself. Because I could no longer operate a keyboard, I wrote all 300 pages using Dragon NaturallySpeaking dictation software. I only worked on the book for an hour or two each day, but I never let many days go by without making some progress. The best way, the only way, to become a better writer is to plant your butt in a seat and write. If you find this prospect unappealing, you are sane and normal. Sane and normal people don’t write books.
Utilize beta readers and editors
At some point in the process, you will see your book take shape. By then, you will have rewritten and reread and re-edited the same pages so many times that you are no longer a viable self-critic. This is when you need to involve others. These others fall into two categories: unpaid beta readers and paid, professional editors. Call on five or so friends or acquaintances who are voracious readers. Ask them to peruse your manuscript and give you honest feedback. Tell them not to concentrate on grammar and spelling. You’ll worry about that later. After you incorporate changes from your beta readers, you’re ready to hire a professional editor or two. I hired a content editor — someone to take a high-level look at the book. Then I hired a copy editor — someone to cross the t’s and dot the i’s.
Make the publishing decision
Most writers dream of publishing a bestseller, followed by a movie, followed by fame and fortune. For perspective, remember what you told your kids when they said they wanted to become a professional athlete. “That’s nice, but you need a backup plan.”
To have any chance of making it big, you must secure a literary agent who must, in turn, attract a publishing house who must, in turn, convince readers to buy your book. Each of those steps is daunting, but it doesn’t hurt to give it a try. I did. Then I went to my backup plan. I self-published and threw my book up on amazon.com in three formats: print, electronic, and audio.
There are so many ways to self-publish; it is beyond the scope of this post. My only warning — be careful of high-priced, online services. You’ll never make your money back.
I had done so much editing for so many years. I feared that no matter when I pushed the “publish” button I would regret it. Anytime I opened the book I would want to edit some more. This didn’t turn out to be the case. Once I published, I never looked back.
Market the book
If you work with a publishing house, they’ll expect you to get off your couch and market your book. If you self-publish, and you want to sell some books, you must get out and market your product and your personal brand. Whatever your platform, rev it up. Talk to newspapers, websites, local bookstores, libraries, TV stations, etc. If you are an introvert, get over it. There is no sales tool more potent than an author promoting their work. See the video below of a TV interview I sat for.
It’s your decision
It’s easy to see why no sensible person would take all of this on, especially someone with a serious health problem. But if you are just crazy enough and you give yourself enough time (years, not months), you might find that publishing a book is one of the most rewarding endeavors you’ll ever undertake. It has been for me.
I loved every step of the process. When interviewing my mother’s surviving friends, I reconnected with folks I might never have seen again if not for conducting this research. I have a curious mind, and I love to learn new skills, so educating myself on the writing process was a labor of love. I’m still part of the monthly writers’ group and have made lifelong friends there.
Writing became a spiritual endeavor
As for the writing itself, it became a spiritual endeavor. Revisiting my past, identifying and in some cases resolving internal conflicts, choosing the best way to draw the reader into the narrative — these processes lent a new perspective to my past life, and by extension to my present condition. Although I wrote this book for the pleasure of the reader (they can detect if you’re writing it only for yourself), I may have been the greatest beneficiary of the effort.
After the book launched
But the real fun began after the book launched.
So many people remarked how the book had affected them in a positive way. This was humbling. I gave informal talks at libraries, coffee shops, and bookstores. I met with book groups who had read and analyzed my memoir. And I can’t describe the satisfaction of having produced something which should survive through the generations in my family. And finally, it felt so good that I could honor all the amazing people who helped me along the way, especially my wife, Kim.
Lots to think about. Good luck.
Do you celebrate your MS Anniversary?