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Should You Write a Memoir?

Updated on September 3, 2017
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Heidi Thorne is a self publishing expert, nonfiction book editor, author of 21+ books and eBooks, and a former trade newspaper editor.

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During a writers' conference I attended, the speakers fielded several questions about writing a memoir. I found that curious since the conference was pretty tilted toward fiction writing. It's also curious in that so many people felt that their stories were worth publishing...even being worthy of a traditional publishing contract.

So should you write a memoir of your life experiences?

Who Wants to Read Your Memoir?

When I've asked memoir writers to tell me what markets they see reading their books, I usually get silence or a blank stare.

Memoirists may not even think about the market or purpose for their books. They're just so interested in spilling their personal history into a book that, to them, the market is irrelevant. For them, it is more of a cathartic exercise for painful life experiences, or a way to garner the attention they feel they deserve.

Also realize that there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of books written on almost every type of life experience. Your story, no matter how great, could be just one of the many. So what makes your story so special?

Reasons to Write a Memoir

I have to break it to you that nobody really cares about your story... unless there's something of value in it for the reader.

Extraordinary? If you have accomplished or survived extraordinary things, sharing them could inspire or motivate others. But realize that your "extraordinary" may be your readers' "ordinary." Again, there are likely many books that tell similar stories already on the market. A quick search on Amazon should tell you if you're unique and extraordinary, or just one of many.

You're Famous and People Want Your Backstory. Are you a genuine celebrity or a highly regarded figure in your industry? Are your fans clamoring to find out more about you? Then memoirs can be a worthwhile and profitable project. This is why you see the big traditional publishers pursuing famous people for book deals. There's a built-in market for these people's stories.

Don't Mix Memoir With Mission

One of the audience questions at the writers' conference asked about blending a how-to book with a memoir. This makes a marketing mess! Including anecdotes in a how-to can be helpful in explaining concepts. But that doesn't qualify it as a memoir.

Some memoirists want to offer their unique insight and perspective by telling their side of a story. They want to promote understanding, maybe even gain some sympathy, for their viewpoint. But, again, there may already be a slew of books on the market that will compete. Also, these approaches dance on the edge of being standard nonfiction. If it truly is nonfiction, categorizing it as a memoir could reduce its visibility and sales.

Know which genre you're writing and what mission you're trying to accomplish.

Do You Need a Full Book for Your Memoir?

Unless you've lived an extraordinary life or you're a celebrity, telling your womb to (eventual) tomb tale may be overkill. Again, there might not be a market for it.

However, if you're bound and determined to share your personal story with the world, one thing to consider might be anthology books. An example of an anthology would be the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. In these books, contributing writers tell their stories, in whole or in part, in one chapter.

Because these books are usually thematic, the stories in them need to be focused on a particular theme or topic. This can help a memoir writer focus on one or a few life anecdotes that align with the rest of the anthology. Even if it's pay-to-play participation in the book, it might be less expensive than going it alone with a stand-alone self published memoir, or even trying to get a traditional book contract.

Legal Issues With Memoirs

Memoirs can be legal minefield! I've read personal stories that just make me shudder.

Some are filled with accusations of abuse, addiction, and outright crime committed by others (or even the writer!). Others specifically mention family members that would easily known even if just identified by the relationship (e.g., "my ex-husband"), friends, or work connections as perpetrators of these acts. Kiss-and-tell, tell-all, sensationalized, embellished, exaggerated, or exposé stories and descriptions could land you in lawsuit territory.

Even if the stories including others are positive, would those others want to have these incidents or their involvement made public? And could they, rightly or wrongly, expect some compensation for including their story?

Consult an attorney BEFORE ever publishing a memoir!

Disclaimer: Both the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparation of this information. No representations or warranties for its contents, either expressed or implied, are offered or allowed and both parties disclaim any implied warranties of merchantability or fitness for your particular purpose. The advice and strategies presented herein may not be suitable for you, your situation or business. Consult with a professional advisor where and when appropriate. Neither the publisher nor author shall be liable for any loss of profit or any other damages, including but not limited to special, incidental, consequential or punitive, arising from or relating to your reliance on this information.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne

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    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi, AliciaC! I'm with you. Sure, we may have had some interesting experiences along our paths. But I just don't think my memoir would be a page turner. :) I don't have an issue including snippets of my life experience in what I write to help people relate. That's about it, though. Thank you, as always, for stopping by and joining the conversation! Have a beautiful day!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 2 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I'll never be writing a memoir, since nobody would be interested in my life. I enjoyed reading about the potential problems associated with memoirs, though. Thanks once again for sharing your extensive knowledge, Heidi.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Adrienne! True, many people don't even think about the consequences of telling their stories. I've seen some that just scare me! Thanks for reading and sharing. Have a relaxing Labor Day!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      RF Writes, it can be a difficult project indeed! Realize that once you publish, you're public. (The root word of "publish" means to "make public.") Proceed accordingly. Thanks for stopping by!

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      RF Writes (rfwrites38.wordpress.com) 2 months ago

      Thank you; your idea of writing ones memoirs is a difficult project. How does one remain private and public at the same time? I shall give you idea a chance; thanks again

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 months ago from USA

      Great tips offered here, and I particularly like that you mentioned the legal implications. I have a neighbor who is in the process of writing a memoir and will let her know about the potental liability about mentioning people without asking them first!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Sally, you bring up an interesting situation where a memoir of sorts would be valuable. I think the thing there is that it doesn't have to be publishable, meaning that it could be a privately produced work that's shared with close family and friends. Just had a question about this type of private publishing (I don't know what else to call it). So stay tuned for a post discussing that since I think it's something a lot of folks would like to do.

      Thanks, as always, for adding more insight and different perspectives to these publishing topics! Have a wonderful Labor Day Weekend!

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Flourish, I couldn't agree more! Everyone has a story, but that's doesn't mean everyone needs to publish their stories. Thanks for chiming in! Have a relaxing Labor Day Weekend!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      Very few people should write a memoir. Thanks for highlighting why.

    • sallybea profile image

      Sally Gulbrandsen 2 months ago from Norfolk

      Mmmm this is something I have always aspired to write but the good thing about not starting one yet is that I realize after a time that perhaps my story is not as important as I once thought it was:) There are many good reasons to write a memoir and I think one of those is for those people who find themselves estranged from their children. It is probably a nice way to fill in the gaps so that the children in the future can have a little window into their lives.

    • heidithorne profile image
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      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      Billybuc, I think lots of authors blend the real with the fictional to tell their stories. Glad you found a way to tell your story in a different way.

      It's been pretty cool and beautiful here, but really, really dry (except for north IL). Hope you have a Labor-less Labor Day Weekend!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 months ago from Olympia, WA

      I cleverly disguised my memoir in a novel, "Resurrecting Tobias." :) That will be the only time I write one.

      Have a fantastic weekend! The hot weather has returned here. So very strange!