Is It Worthwhile to Write My Memoir, Especially If a Publishing Deal Is Unlikely?

From Jane Friedman:


In the eighth decade of my life and after having three books traditionally published—a travel memoir 50 years ago and two novels more recently—I am pondering the wisdom of writing a very personal memoir.

What has moved me most to think about this is the #MeToo movement: I was the victim of date rape while working as a civilian employee on an American army base in France from 1963–1964. While my time in France was indeed a wonderful one, a dream come true, tarnished only by this one incident, I sometimes reflect on the high percentage of women who have suffered sexual abuse, many while serving in the military. I was advised not to report this case by my immediate superior with the very real threat that the perpetrator (an officer) most likely would not be punished, and it would likely mean the loss of my job.

The memoir I am thinking of and which I have partially written is about much more than this incident; it is also about the loss of innocence and the excitement of discovering a foreign culture. It includes the story of my first true romance, an interracial affair. I was the “innocent” white girl in love with an African American enlisted man—two “no-no’s” for I was told during my training that it was absolutely not advised to date enlisted men, but only officers, “men of a higher caliber.” Race was not mentioned but implied by the times and by several other statements. These experiences in addition to the opportunity I had to develop wonderful life-long friendships with several French citizens prompts me to want to share them in a memoir. I would like to know if this is worth my writing; would it be received well or would you offer a caveat to me, to avoid what may be a well-worn subject matter?

—Memoirist with a Dilemma

P.S. I would love to have a traditional publisher if I do finish this memoir, but in today’s world, I think it is highly unlikely I would find one interested in an octogenarian author.

Dear Memoirist with a Dilemma,

Oh my goodness, there are so many layers to this question!

I think I want to start by saying that even if #MeToo feels like it’s run its course, even if it feels like the publishing world is tired of women’s stories about rape, or maybe just tired of women’s stories or memoirs, period…I assure you, the market is not oversaturated with memoirs by women in their eighth decade.

Which, as you know, doesn’t mean there’s an easy path ahead of you. The publishing world may not be receptive to a memoir like this for any number of reasons—some of which might be valid and some of which are utter bullshit. Your age might be one of those reasons, but it’s not the only one. Publishing is a highly uncertain field with few guarantees, and the market for memoirs can be particularly uncertain.

As it happens, I’m writing this response on Labor Day, so in answering your question about the value of writing a memoir—and about the worth of writing—I do first want to acknowledge writing (and art-making, generally) as a form of labor that, like any labor, should be fairly compensated, monetarily.

That said, for better and worse, many artistic and writing projects fall largely outside the realm of capitalism. Recently, I was listening to one of the first episodes of the “Wiser Than Me” podcast*, hosted by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; it’s an interview with Isabel Allende (who didn’t start writing novels until 40), who channeled Elizabeth Gilbert giving advice to young writers—which you are not, but maybe this is actually just decent advice for any writer: “Don’t expect your writing to give you fame or money, right? Because you love the process, right? And that’s the whole point, love the process.” 

Which is just to say that, if you’re asking whether writing this memoir is likely to justify your time and energy, financially—well, unfortunately, that’s probably a very short response letter. It’s almost certainly not.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write it, or that writing this memoir would be unwise, in some way, or unworthy of your time and energy. The answer, here, lies in the whyWhy do you want to write this memoir?

Do you love the process? Do you think you’ll feel better about the world on the average day when you’ve sat down to work on this book than on a day when you haven’t? Do you enjoy writing more than you don’t enjoy it?

If your answers to those questions are enthusiastically positive, then that’s reason enough to write.

There might be other, even more significant reasons to dive fully into this project. Writing a memoir isn’t therapeutic, per se, but the process of writing and rewriting our personal stories can be a rewarding process, one that’s often full of (good) surprises.

In this case, you’re talking about revisiting experiences—including an assault—after 60 years; the opportunity to reshape your story and to reconsider what you make of it might be incredibly meaningful. Indeed, it sounds like you’re already doing this to some extent, inspired in part by the #MeToo movement and other people’s sharing of their stories. One of the reasons #MeToo took off was because it defused and transformed a particular kind of shame and loneliness an awful lot of women had been sitting with for too long. Perhaps you, too, have been feeling that way.

Does revisiting this time and your experiences—the many good ones as well as the bad one—and considering them from fresh and maybe unexpected angles sound appealing and useful? Again, if your answer here is an enthusiastic yes: what are you waiting for?

(This might be an unpopular opinion, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s also completely valid to say, “Nah, I don’t need to relive all that.” But I think you wouldn’t have written in with this question if that were how you felt about it.)

Ultimately, both of those reasons are sort of personal and maybe even a little self-centered. And so what if they are? After all, as Mary Oliver put it in “The Summer Day” (which she wrote at age 62), “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” You really don’t have to please anyone but yourself.

But I also understand that writing a memoir solely for the pleasure of it might not feel entirely satisfactory, either. We want our stories to make connections, and to matter to someone, right?

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

4 thoughts on “Is It Worthwhile to Write My Memoir, Especially If a Publishing Deal Is Unlikely?”

  1. The querent appears to be a rather competent writer. But the OP is correct; she will get little interest from “real publishers” (which is the definition of “writing” obvious in every piece I have ever seen from Ms. Friedman). They would be interested in a memoir like this from a celebrity, certainly, but not from someone that hardly anyone has ever heard of. (One does wonder just how much of those celebrity “memoirs” are truly that – or hagiography resulting from the ghost writer’s desire to get paid.)

    I shall channel our host here – write your memoir. Put it on Amazon. It will reach at least some readers, and it might very well go viral. Making you at least some amount of financial return in the process.

    • That’s where I’m at. I don’t grasp the point of writing about yourself for other people to read about if there’s no “arc” or point. If you lived through something historical, maybe, but I usually prefer those stories where the writer is explaining what they did about the events they lived through.

      The late actress Theresa Saldana had a made-for-TV movie about her recovery from being stabbed several times by her stalker. But it also showed how her efforts led to the innovation of group therapy, for survivors of specific traumas to come together to support each other. Saldana not only recovered, she helped others to recover, and raised awareness of stalking. Perhaps this genre of memoir is called “inspirational”? But to me that’s the hook that gives a memoir a point. Especially if you don’t have the “raising awareness” factor, e.g., “Lorenzo’s Oil,” or the historical factor, e.g., Corrie ten Boom’s “Hiding Place.”

      There’s an old navy commercial where Keith David does the voice over and asks, “If someone wrote a book about your life, would anyone want to read it?” It’s a call to adventure — “join the navy, see the world” — but with memoirs I think it also works to ask yourself what the reader would get out of you telling about your life.

  2. One of the dozen mistakes most often made by early-career writers:

    Writing to someone else‘s perception of “the market.”

    Because even when the output is a piece of utter dreck, if it’s coming from inside there’s at least a chance that it’s a learning experience — and, more disturbingly, I’ve seldom come across those who advocate particular definitions of “the market” as being what’s “appropriate” for early-career writers who are not impaired (at best) by conflicts of interest. Not just blind spots, or ignorance, or arrogance: Outright conflicts of interest.

    Or worse.

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