My Take on Memoir Writing

I am a book doctor. But ahead of that, I am a writer. I am not a memoir writer - yet. I have a book I've been working on for some time, tentatively called They Do Things Differently Here, about moving from Los Angeles to the Middle East. But it hasn't quite gelled for me, so the project is waiting in the wings. Actually, I interrupted They Do Things Differently to write a different book. A hybrid memoir about my beloved Gidon Lev.


"Hybrid-memoir" is my own, made-up term, by the way. But I think it fits.


I wrote a book about writing a book about a Holocaust survivor's memoirs. If you're wondering if that made it hard to pitch the book to agents, you would be right about that. See my blog post of yesterday about the path I decided to take.


I receive many emails from writers in general, but lately, many would-be memoir writers have asked my advice. I am very proud of this because The True Adventures unexpectedly broke the mold.

I tell writers that in my opinion, unless you are Keith Richards or Obama or someone like that, a memoir about your life, even if it's focused on a particular, dramatic period, is not in itself interesting to more than a thin slice of people who may have had a similar experience.

By the same token, writing toward universal themes like "motherhood" or "aging" or "difficult teenagers" or how hard life is, is too broad to really gain traction.


Let me be super upfront about something: I am a bookworm. I read like a maniac. I am probably the most curious person I know. When I was a kid, I used to take volumes of the encyclopedia to bed. I'd start at the beginning and work my way through. Remember encyclopedias? Yeah, now we have Wiki.

Anyway - as a writer and book doctor, I come from the perspective of putting myself in the shoes of a reader. So what makes me choose this book instead of that book? I might be browsing through a category like memoir (or anything else), and yeah, a book cover might appeal, briefly, or a catchy title - but beyond that, I'm going to read that subtitle and back cover copy and decide that this book makes me curious. If the genre is mystery, to make a broad example - I'm going to wonder whodunnit and how. Or if the criminal is caught. If it's sci-fi, I'm going to be curious about the world of the story.

A memoir might inspire curiosity about a time or place that the reader is totally unfamiliar with, or a reader might say omg, I have lived this; I want to know more about it. You can capture that curiosity from either end.


So memoir writers, aside from their own cathartic reasons for writing, need to keep that in mind. What will inspire curiosity in a potential reader?

Writers should be thinking in larger terms about the afterlife of their book. That might mean a sequel, an audiobook, a podcast series, a weekly Substack article, or maybe it's a series of hand painted postcards or amigurumi stress toys.


In other words, the book is one thing. A process - and a big and important one. But too often, in my experience, writers put all of their creative eggs in that basket and are disappointed when the book finally comes out, they sell 200 copies, and that's the end of that. It doesn't have to be that way.


The line between writers and "creators" was always thin, but now it's wide open. If writers can take that attitude with them as they write - that they are opening up all kinds of possibilities for themselves, it inspires their creativity.


I know there are book doctors and writing coaches that stress structure and word count and clever chapter titles. I do that too - because that's Writing 101. But my specialty and passion is working with writers to help them write toward the curiosity of readers - which - incidentally - is also writing for the market as well as writing toward other opportunities to be creative.

I think it's essential for writers to be aware of the larger cultural landscape; everybody is writing memoirs. Why? Because we can. But at least as significantly because we are all living through a highly changeable time with a lot of external stress and introspection. We are looking forward and back. We are trying to understand what is happening and make sense of our lives.

That's a win-win for memoir writers. They write because they are a part of this zeitgeist, and there are readers who want to hear what they have to say.


But it cannot be ignored that there is such a tsunami of books out there, and it competes with a tsunami of content of every kind, so writers need to buckle up and take that under advisement.


The most extraordinarily precious thing in the world right now is time and attention.


Why should I read your memoir when I can swipe through Tiktok? Why should I read your book if I can read another book that includes instructions about how to crochet pants which is also linked to an Instagram account and a blog about stress management?


The True Adventures went from a book to a podcast series to a viral TikTok account to a documentary film (in production). So there are not one but four ways people can experience this story. It didn't happen all at once, nor was that the plan. But opportunities arose, and I took them.


When I work with writers, I want them to focus on writing a great manuscript, be it fiction or non. But I also encourage writers to think a few steps ahead of the finished product by opening up the possibilities for not just this book but other opportunities to express that might derive from it. It's simply a wider, more fun, rewarding way to approach your writing.