• Kamy Wicoff
  • Writing About Your Life: It Doesn't Have To Be (And Sometimes Shouldn't Be) A Memoir
This blog was featured on 08/30/2016
Writing About Your Life: It Doesn't Have To Be (And Sometimes Shouldn't Be) A Memoir

Everyone has heard the expression, "Write what you know." The real question is, write what you know...how? For some writers this isn't a difficult question. If you are writing fantasy or historical fiction, you write what you know by drawing from your life experiences with love, loss, and conflict to give your characters' experiences resonance and depth, and perhaps even use aspects of people you know to bring those characters to life. If you are an expert in a field, your path is even clearer: write a straightforward nonfiction book sharing what you know in a format your readers can easily understand. But what if you what really want to write about is your own life? Is memoir the only way to go?

Many beginning writers think so. But having taught memoir, I often encountered students with stories I believed could have been better told--and even more truthfully told--if their authors had written them as fiction instead. I know something about the choice: my first book, I Do But I Don't: Walking Down the Aisle Without Losing Your Mind, was part memoir, part cultural criticism; my latest, Wishful Thinking, is a novel that draws many of its details and emotional truths from my life. I wouldn't have done either book any other way. How did I choose? Here are three questions I asked myself, and that those at the crossroads may want to ask themselves, too.

1) How honest do I want to be? The best memoirs hold very little back. Skilled memoirists, of course, find ways to focus on a particular aspect of their lives or their stories so they do not have to expose people or things they want to protect (and also in order not to write boring, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink books). But if there are too many no-fly zones in the airspace of your story, the path to telling it will be convoluted, and the voice and narrative simply won't ring true. With my first book, I knew I could be extremely honest about my feelings of ambivalence, frustration, and confusion as a bride--I had my then-fiancee's blessing, but most important, the person I exposed the most in that book was me. (I also chose to interview other women for the book so I could tell their stories in addition to my own.) For my second book, I wanted to write about what it's like to be a divorced mother of two in this overscheduled, harried, Lean In world we live in, but knew that if I wrote it as nonfiction it wouldn't just expose me, it would expose my ex-husband and my children, too. Which made writing a novel rather than a memoir, in that case, the right choice for me, and ultimately the genre in which--under the cover of fiction--I could be more emotionally honest.

2) Do I have the makings of a good story? The best memoirs also successfully deploy the tools of fiction to tell good stories, with beginnings, middles, and ends, well-developed scenes, dialogue, and a narrative arc compelling enough to propel readers through page after page. Life, however, doesn't always fit this mold. Kelly Corrigan gave an excellent talk at The Nantucket Project on how much human beings want to impose the neat conventions of narrative onto life, and the distortion and harm that desire can cause. But in a book--news flash!--you can't do without it. I had a friend who had an absolutely incredible life story that she had written beautifully, but couldn't sell, because it didn't have the proper resolution--there was no "ending" so to speak, and readers were left hanging. She was hurt by the editors who told her this, one after the next, as they passed on the book, and I felt for her. "This is what happened!" she would say. "Life doesn't always come with a neat ending!" At the same time I could also see where the editors were coming from. I wish one of them had suggested she write it as a novel. She'd have lost none of the authenticity and gripping detail of what really happened to her, but she would also have been thrillingly free to write any ending--even, god forbid, a happy one--that she wanted to. 

3) What are you trying to accomplish with your book? The truth is that sometimes, the impact of a story is greater when readers know that it really happened. Many very brave memoirists have broken silences, hurt the feelings of people they are close to, and endured a raft of other painful consequences because they know this, and have a story to tell that would be less powerful, and perhaps less capable of changing others' lives, if it were told in fictional form. I was not writing about something that put me at these kinds of risks with my first book, but I was writing about something I felt not enough women (or men) were talking about openly, honestly, and thoughtfully. By coming out and doing that myself, I underscored my message in the genre I chose, not only by telling my story but by telling the stories of other women, too. (This hybrid of memoir and traditional nonfiction is a route I think many more people should consider when writing a memoir with an issue at its heart. Hope Edelman's classic, Motherless Daughters, was my guide.) Fiction, however, can also be a powerful tool for changing the way your readers see themselves and the world. Wishful Thinking is in part about work/life balance and the myth of "having it all", and I knew that in a world crowded with prescriptive, sometimes bullying books on this subject, a novel might be just the thing to open the doors to conversation in a way less likely to put people on the defensive.

On April 12th I will be the guest instructor on night one of a four-night, terrific, practical, meaty course taught by uber-blogger and entrepreneur Penelope Trunk (who makes a living writing about her life) called How To Write About Your Life, and will dive deeper into this subject, with an opportunity for questions and answers, too. You can read about the course in detail here, but some of the highlights include:

1) An evening devoted to story structure, learning the art of "writing long and cutting back";

2) An evening about how to turn writing about your life into a paycheck, covering a wide range of financial arrangements from blogging, to book deals, to self-publishing and newsletters, and including information on how to write a book proposal that sells.

3) Access to Penelope's agent, who has agreed to read writing samples from anyone who takes the class. (This is the same agent who got Penelope a six-figure book deal.)

If this sounds like the right course for you at the right moment in your writing life, I hope you will join us! THE COURSE IS ONLINE, so you can take it from anywhere (yay!), and it will be recorded so you can watch it at any time


In the meantime, for those of you writing about your lives: How did you make this choice, or are you still in the process of making it? And what other questions do you think writers facing this decision need to ask?

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  • Cheryl Roshak Writing

    Thanks Kamy, looking forward to tomorrow. However, where do we go, sign in, bring with us etc. I'm both excited and nervous but I don't have any of the technical details for tomorrow. Did I miss something? Thanks for helping out.

  • That's wonderful Cheryl! Can't wait to have you.

  • Cheryl Roshak Writing

    I do know how to spell 'whether,' I just don't type that well!

  • Cheryl Roshak Writing

    It's always amazing to me that often when you need something the most, and might not even know it, suddenly it appears in your sphere and it's there for the taking, as if it were always there and you just didn't know it. That's how I feel about this course being offered.

    I wrestled with the memoir for years, and have even attempted to turn it into fiction, a novel, hopefully. The most I was able to crank out was a short fiction story based on a true aspect of my life. It's 99% done, just not quite finished as is everything else I write. I was able to read it to a writer's group of about 50 a couple years ago, and it received a great response but then I don't know what happened, as usual. Maybe this time is my time to finally finish something in this genre, wether memoir or fiction. Here's to all of us who struggle so valiantly!! :)

  • Carol Cassara

    Am I  missing the details on that fixed link, like time, date, etc?  I thought I saw it somewhere but now it's just not obvious in the "details and sign up information". Did I miss it?

  • Sharon Anderson

    I have been fighting with the thought of writing a memoir for years.  I think my biggest fear was disclosing personal information about my family and friends.  Reading this has convince me to write it as fiction.  I just wish I could afford to take your class.  It's not in my budget, but this blog has been helpful.

  • Sheila K. Collins

    In the year since my memoir Warrior Mother:Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal was published by by She Writes Press, YAAY! I've been writing shorter pieces -  short stories and articles using my life experience. A story that didn't make the cut for the book was published by the Examined Life Journal and an opinion piece about same sex marriage appeared in the Huffington Post.  I heard about a couple of anthologies looking for pieces on mental health and I wrote about my experiences with my younger brother who experienced mental illness after an LSD trip went wrong. I just heard yesterday that my piece, "He's Not Crazy, He's My Brother" will be published in May. (My brother worked with me on this and we're both excited about the outcome).

  • So sorry everyone! I just updated the link to the correct one. Argh. It's correct now in the post, and here: http://www.quistic.com/seminar/how-to-write-about-your-life-she-writes

  • Karen Henderson

    not able to sign up. How do we register? 

  • Diane Pomerantz

    The sign up link is still not available

  • Like to find out how to register. 

  • Carol Cassara

    The sign up link is broken.

  • Romalyn Tilghman

    Link not working for me either.

  • Autumn Ashbough

    Yes, I tried a few times and haven't been able to find the page.  I'll try again later.

  • Chandi Wyant

    Oh dear, it says page not found!

  • Hi Chandi, sorry if it was confusing! I just updated the post with a much clearer link to the page where you can sign up. (And also read more detail about the course.)

  • Chandi Wyant

    Hi, I am interested in this class. Where do I sign up?

  • This sounds awesome, Kamy. What a great topic for writers on the fence about whether to do fiction or memoir.