Who Should Write a Memoir?

In 2006, James Frey became known as the “Man who conned Oprah” with his memoir A Million Little Pieces, which told of his life as an alcoholic, drug addict, and criminal. It was the graphic and raw details that gripped Oprah, sold over a million copies of the book, and placed Frey on the bestseller list, just below Harry Potter. Only a few years later, Herman Rosenblat pulled a fast one when he propagated a memoir, Angel at the Fence, about his life during the Holocaust when he was kept alive by a girl who brought him food each day and who he reunited with on a blind date many years later. Each of these memoirs was an extremely well received story, worthy enough to have touched Oprah, before it was exposed as absolute fiction. So when is it best to write a memoir and when is it better to just write a novel “based on a true story?”

Memoir and autobiography are not synonymous, and by definition, a memoir contains a fictional element. An autobiography is the self telling of one’s life from the beginning up to the point when the autobiography is written. Although it’s understandable that someone writing an autobiography would omit insignificant details, for the most part, the reader can safely assume that he or she is getting the whole story. In the case of a memoir, only a certain aspect or theme of the person’s life is being highlighted, so the story, like fiction, is being narrativized. The author is emphasizing the importance of an event by its mere inclusion in the narrative. However, the element of fiction does not make a memoir fictitious. In any recollection, the storyteller chooses which parts to condense or expand and what to include or omit. But the assumption with a memoir, as with an autobiography, is that everything included is true.
Each one of us on the planet, each day that we live, adds another possible page to our future memoir. But just because all of us have a unique life story that at some point doubtlessly touches on the human condition, does that qualify each one of us to publish a memoir? Of course not. For example, in the case of James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, the amount of “embellishment” required to make their stories attention grabbing also made them untrue. So who should write a memoir?
1. You have already made national news. If some aspect of your life has already been deemed newsworthy, then you have (or had) the attention of an audience. You might want a bit more than 15 minutes of fame before you start writing query letters for a book deal, but if you can measure your time in the spot light in months or years, you might be a good candidate.
2. You have done something less than five percent of the population can claim. Utilizing current technologies, more people than ever are able to climb Mt. Everest or survive cancer. This fact does not diminish similar accomplishments in a person’s life, and a story of personal resilience against adversity, difficult situations, or disease certainly deserves an audience’s utmost respect. But in terms of selling books, the more unique the perspective, the larger audience you might be able to attract. If Ed Hommer, the first double amputee to summit Mt. McKinley, had lived long enough to write a memoir, he would have had a great claim to the extraordinary. Any story of cancer survival can be emotionally uplifting and offer hope, but those that offer a more unique perspective might sell more books or at least attract more publicity. Geoffrey Kurland, doctor turned patient, wrote a memoir, My Own Medicine: A Doctor’s Life as a Patient, about his battle with cancer and how it changed his outlook as a doctor. Lucy Grealy wrote Autobiography of a Face about her bout with a rare form of cancer that resulted in the removal of one-third of her jaw.
3. You have a unique, first-hand perspective on a major event. If you have worked in the Peace Corp in Darfur, you have seen things that most people can’t even imagine. However, many people might be able to write a book on their perspective of this major event, be it political, women’s studies, or military in nature. If five people all write similar books about this same major event, the uniqueness of each subsequent memoir diminishes exponentially.
4. Your story gives a voice to those who can’t tell their own story. What made James Frey’s story so extraordinary was his poignant telling of a story of depravity. Certainly other people have recovered from rock bottom addiction or turned away from a life of crime, but not many have the ability to tell their story truthfully and beautifully in writing. Azar Nafisi’s international bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran, gained so much fame because it was a previously unseen glimpse of women under the burka in Revolutionary Iran—a story few Persian women would be able to tell.

According to a 2006 Wall Street Journal article, publishers are accepting more memoirs, and not just by famous people, but publishers and agents are also being inundated with hundreds of memoir manuscripts each month. If you have a writing talent and compelling life story, tell it. However, if your life has given you insight but the story requires embellishing to make it a page-turner, by all means, go ahead and embellish. It’s called fiction. Would people have bought James Frey’s novel in the same volume that they bought his “memoir”? There is no way to know, but publishing a novel would not have ended in scandal, cost Random House thousands in refunds, gotten Oprah mad at him, and temporarily hurt his writing career (Frey, in 2007, got a three-book, seven-figure deal from Harper Collins to write fiction). There is no shame in “based on a true story” if the end result is a story people will want to read.

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