It’s a daunting thing to self-publish a memoir. At times it entails confronting some aspect of your life or personality that you’d prefer not to face—though it can also be liberating for that very reason. Then, there’s the whole issue of what you remember versus what you think you remember versus what you really don’t remember at all.
“Most people who go into memoir are generally stenographers: they keep notebooks and journals,” says author Chloe Caldwell, who is teaching a 10-week class on memoir writing at Gotham Writers Workshop in Manhattan, and, on August 27, will begin teaching a four-week online class on personal essays through LitReactor.
Such was the case for Leila Summers, the South African author who self-published It Rains in February, a memoir about her husband’s suicide. “The year leading up to my husband’s suicide was so chaotic, and there was no one to talk to,” she says. After his death, she looked over her journal and decided to type it up so that her children would one day know the full story. Soon, she began filling in more pieces of the narrative. “That’s when I realized I had enough for a book,” Summers says.
But whether a memoirist keeps a journal or not, gaps in memory are inevitable, and Caldwell noticed that this was an occasional hang-up for her students, some of whom were anxious about not remembering enough of their lives. In these situations, Caldwell gives writing prompts for her classes designed to set recollections in motion. “Ideas and memories don’t stem from nothing,” she says. “Memories trigger memories. The more you sit with the piece you want to write about—over days or months—the more you remember stuff.”
Another option is old-fashioned journalism. Looking at bank statements and keepsakes, Caldwell says, can reveal a lot about the past. Memoirists should also fact-check their history or talk to other people who were in their life during the period they’re writing about.
This tactic was used to much success in the traditionally published memoir The Night of the Gun, written by the reporter David Carr, who employed his journalistic training to examine his drug-addled life in the 1980s. “For two years on and off, I pulled medical and legal documents and engaged in a series of interviews with people I used to run with,” wrote Carr, who died earlier this year, describing his process. “It felt less like journalism than archeology, a job that required shovels and axes, hacking my way into dark, little-used passages and feeling my way around.... I would show up at the doorsteps of people I had not seen in two decades and ask them to explain myself to me.”
Carr was unique, of course. He suffered through a particularly nasty time in his life. Not everyone has those dark, little-used passages running through their lives. And this is another stressor for some of Caldwell’s students. “They don’t always think they’re interesting enough,” she says. “The normal self-doubt that writers have—they have it more acutely because they’re telling their personal stories.”
Caldwell points to Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. “Cheryl did a phenomenal thing taking that hike, but what really happened is her mother died,” she says. Caldwell tells her students that a good memoir isn’t really about content or story, but about the human condition behind it all.
“There are no new stories, just new ways to tell them,” Caldwell says. “It’s finding your unique voice and what the larger meaning behind the story is. A guy asked me why I think my stories are important. They’re important because they’re not important. That’s why people respond to my work.”
Summers, who provides editing and book advisory services, breaks down the memoir process into three technical stages: writing, crafting, and editing. Writing, she says, is pretty straightforward. Summers is working on a second memoir about moving on from grief. But her writing process is considerably different from her first memoir. Here, she’s writing memories and ideas as they come to her and what she has so far is out of order.
But crafting is where the process gets tricky. Most people’s journals aren’t structured like stories—but are random strands of memory and events.
“Crafting is cutting and pasting and moving stuff around,” Summers says. “Not taking the story out of sequence, but taking memories and other bits of writing to make it cohesive and readable, like a story.”
And then Summers’s process turns to excising the dull parts. “When you edit, that means deleting huge pieces of text because you realize it’s long and boring and not really relevant,” she says. “You’re reading it now from beginning to end, which I did about 30 times, as well as grammar, punctuation, and all of that.” She also had two professional editors scour her text.
The Personal Is Promotional
Like other books, a memoir needs a readership. Despite the genre’s popularity, there’s a glut of memoirs out there. “It’s super hard with all the celebrity memoirs that have flooded the market,” says Julia Drake, the founder and CEO of the boutique book publicity firm that bears her name. So what to do? Certainly the establishment of a platform—usually encompassing a social media presence and website—is mandatory.
“From the very beginning, you are selling yourself as a personality or brand,” Drake says of memoirists. There’s an extent to which social media promotion for a memoir is easier than for something like a novel, where the author has to strike a balance between promoting himself and promoting the story. No such conflict exists for the memoirist.
At the same time, memoirists need to focus on something other than themselves, or they risk appearing self-indulgent. “There needs to be a certain level of objectivity you bring to it,” Drake says. “The world is bigger than the focus of your story.” A memoir, she says, isn’t just its authors personal story, but a lens through which readers can see their own.
Memoirists can often do this by supplementing their work with original content not about themselves. For example, Nina Ansary, who self-published Jewels of Allah, about the role of women and women’s rights in Iran, posts short bios of accomplished Persian women on Facebook. “At first I had 20 likes and today I get thousands of likes,” she says. It was a way both to gauge interest in her work as well as to engage with an audience through education. Her online interactions also formed the basis for parts of Jewels of Allah.
Ansary also began working closely with the Omid Foundations, an advocacy group dedicated to helping women in Iran. She has pledged to give 100% of the proceeds from sales of her book to charitable organizations, with the Omid Foundations being the primary recipient, and Drake—who works with Ansary—says allying with a larger organization is a tactic memoirists should consider.
“If you’re writing a memoir about hiking the Andes, then maybe there’s an environmental organization you can pair up with,” Drake says. “You can make the book bigger than just your book.”
Finding an organization and learning about its mission and various fund-raising events can be as simple as a Google search. Memoirists should consider what they can offer organizations with their stories. “It’s a two-way street,” Drake says. “There are a lot of things you can do online with cross promotion.” For instance, she adds, “have fund-raising events where you can be a speaker and promote their organization…as well as your own book.”
Shedding light on other people who have gone through similar experiences will generate community interest. Those personal connections, Summers says, are crucially important: “It’s about making friends. Promotion scares a lot of authors. But, if people like you, there’s much more of a chance they’ll like your story, because you’ve made a connection with them first.”
Summers also recommends connecting with like-minded individuals. If a memoir is about cancer, connect with a group of cancer survivors; if a memoir is about diabetes, find a diabetes community. “Ask questions,” Summers says. “Ask for help. They will assist you.”
Just don’t go into it ready to push the hard sell. Sales, Summers says, is about relationships first. “Approach it like you’d approach any other relationship,” she says. “You don’t go to a bar and say, ‘Hi, I’ve written a memoir.’ You first ask the person’s name, about their lives, about themselves. And they’ll ask what you do. You say, ‘I’m a writer.’ Then they’ll ask what you’ve written. It’s much the same in an online relationship.”