Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Telling My Story—Or Not

by Matt Sinclair

I was not born in a log cabin. I have neither run for public office nor finished a race longer than 6.2 miles. Despite my best attempts, I did not play professional baseball and have never dated a supermodel. (And I'm not quite sure which of those two I tried harder to accomplish.) I am not an alcoholic, though there were a couple nights during college when it may have appeared I was trying hard to become one. There was one time when I almost wasn't allowed out of a rehab facility when I was visiting a friend ... but seriously, who hasn't had that experience?

In fact, when it comes right down to it, my life is a pretty average tale of suburban youth, assorted mistakes and successes, several thousand baseball and softball games, a little love, a lot of boredom, and probably a few million words read and written. Not much to write about that the whole wide world might find even moderately interesting.

Of course, if I ever sell the manuscripts I've written and build the audience I'm hoping to develop, then all bets are off!

I wouldn't call myself a regular reader of memoir, but I've read enough of them to know what I like. In the past several months, I read Heaven Is for Real and McCarthy's Bar—though I'd call the latter a travelogue more than a memoir. I generally stay away from the celebrity tell-alls because I just don't care about most of those people.

Which brings me to my point: Unless you're a celebrity or have gained a level of noteriety for whatever reason, if you're writing a memoir you must ask yourself the same question that an agent would ask. Why should anyone care?

I don't mean to sound flippant, and I'm not being cruel, but the world is filled with pain and suffering and always has been. What makes your pain and suffering worth reading about? What lessons that you've learned do the book-buying public absolutely need to learn?

Then again, the same might have been said to Frank McCourt, whose memoir, Angela's Ashes, was arguably one of the best and most well received in the past twenty years. And he answered those questions. The book is many years old now, but the reason it was successful is timeless. It had something many aspiring memoirists fail to accomplish in their manuscript: a narrative arc. It was a story—a true story, yes, but a story nonetheless.

It felt real not because it was real but because there was a storyteller behind it. In a great memoir, like a great story, there is search and discovery. There is change. Even a well-written recitation of facts comes across as a mere chronology, not as a story.

A wise friend of mine shared a tidbit that helps place this all in perspective. The things that happen to you are events, she said, but a series of events does not make a compelling story. When she was in college and some of her classmates prattled on about what happened to them, their professor was known to say, "I don't care what happened to you. I only care what you did!"

Get it? No matter how amazing that car accident you narrowly averted was or how awe-inspiring was the sight of dolphins swimming beside your boat, they're meaningless unless they changed you. You survived your brush with death? That's nice. But you haven't changed one whit; you're still a twit. Show me why I should care.

Unless you have the built-in audience a celebrity can attract, your memoir won't sell unless it has those essential story elements: action, reaction, and change. In my opinion, it's one of the many reasons memoirs are queried much like novels: If the story doesn't attract an agent's attention, it's not going to do a whole lot for a large audience either. Without a story, you're just spinning tales and your wheels.

What is the story of you? Is it worth telling as memoir?

Now, back to me....


Richard said...

Good post. I listened to McCourt's recording of Angela's Ashes. It was mezmerizing. Probably the best memoir I've ever read (or listened to).

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Richard! It's one of the few memoirs I've read more than once. He really knew how to develop a story, even if he had to live it in order to do so.

catwoods said...

This is, quite possibly, my favorite paragraph!

"Get it? No matter how amazing that car accident you narrowly averted was or how awe-inspiring was the sight of dolphins swimming beside your boat, they're meaningless unless they changed you. You survived your brush with death? That's nice. But you haven't changed one whit; you're still a twit. Show me why I should care."

It's so true for both memoir and novel writing. MCs must grow and change. Whether they lived their story in RL or simply on paper.

Great post!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Cat, in so many ways.

Leslie Rose said...

Better to take your life lessons and put a character through them. Unless you've been interviewed by Oprah of course.

Matt Sinclair said...

I agree. It's one reason I love writing fiction. Thanks for your comment, Leslie.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great advice - a series of events really isn't a story. I'm trying to get that across to my middle school students too. :)

Matt Sinclair said...

They might understand it better than most adults. A kid will call out "Boring!" long before a polite adult would.

Rachel McClellan said...

Interesting post. Our lives should be like a main characters in a novel. Readers want to see how the MC changes; how they become the hero of their own life. No one would read a book if the MC stayed the same and repeatedly made the same stupid mistakes.

We need to be the hero of our own lives, and when we do, then a personal memoir might be worth reading about.

sarah said...

I'm going through this entry like a check list. I'm querying my memoir now, and because I'm not already a celebrity I feel like agents are hitting the auto reject button. Yes, I have a story arch, plenty of hot romance, and yes the main character changes.

I feel like I might get better response if I just pretend I made the whole thing up and market it as fiction.

Matt Sinclair said...

Mind you, I'm not saying make stuff up about your life and market it as memoir. The James Frey and Greg Mortenson books have shown how detrimental this can be to one's reputation. If you want to use parts of your life in a novel, go for it. I don't think I know any writer who hasn't done that to some extent. I see elements of myself in all my main characters -- male, female, doesn't matter. But none of them are me. One thing is certain: memoir is a very tough sell.

RSMellette said...

I wonder about the whole memoir trend in writing - not necessarily publishing.

Why does someone's life story HAVE to be a memorior? Make it a novel. Steinbeck did. Dickens did. Where the real events work, great, change the names and go with it. Where they don't dip into the well of fiction.

Just don't pull a Fry and call it fact.

Matt Sinclair said...

Personally, I think it has to do with the psychology of suffering and healing. Obviously, not every memoir is about overcoming personal pain, and it's simplistic of me to keep touching on that one area. But I see a lot of those stories talked about. I think it's healthy to talk about one's challenges and celebrate success in overcoming them. I admire anyone who is able to not be a complete zombie after the loss of a child or spouse, for instance. I couldn't imagine the pain. If I went through something like that, I'd write about it in a fictional way; it's my way. Some want to write about the facts and their experience. I'm ok with that. Getting either work published is still a crap shoot, though.

Ruth said...

This is an interesting topic for me to read. I'm presently tossing around the idea of writing a book with the biological mother of the daughter I adopted. The hardest part is deciding what to keep in and what to leave out. What moves the story along and what should not be remembered about the event? I've never seen a book like it so I'm hoping we could find a niche -- but the question of why someone would want to read the story is a valid one and one that I should have a good answer to before we start writing. Good post!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks Ruth. Another question you'll need to ask yourself is WHY there hasn't been a book like it. Often there's a reason. It could be the market doesn't exist or isn't large enough to sustain. This is one area where nonfiction is different than fiction: Having competition shows agents and publishers that there's a market. But in your case, I'd think that not only is there a market but it's probably a growing one. Obviously, it depends on the approach you and your co-author take. I'd love to hear more!

Ruth said...


The idea to write the story of the adoption came to me when a co-worker asked me to share my story with someone she knew and then that person asked me to share it with someone else. I'll share the story with you if you'd like, but I hate to post too much of it before I start writing it. My email is if you're interested.