Wednesday, May 06, 2009

On writing memoir

Recently I was poking about on the website for This American Life, the altogether brilliant public radio show and now HBO television show that is one of the only things that tempts me toward faithlessness--in thought if not deed--toward book publishing. (Book publishing and public radio—apparently I don’t even fantasize about career-cheating with a high-paying job). In any case, I happened upon their submission guidelines. Although these are tailored to the demands of a radio show with a very distinctive sensibility (anyone who’s never listened should give it a try) they struck me as pertinent to book projects, especially memoir.

Memoir is a tricky category, one that I love but one in which the bar for writing is high and the demand for platform still higher. If you’re not already famous, or a participant in the Real Housewives/Dancing with Stars/America’s Top Model franchises, persuading a publisher to take a chance on your own story can be challenging. Despite the ubiquity of reality shows, not every person poised to write a personal narrative has a tv deal (yet), which means that for those people brave enough to wade into a sodden market that editors politely call “saturated,” not only had you better write very, very, very well, but do so in service of a story in which the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. So how, exactly, does this mathemagical equation work?

I thought This American Life’s submission guidelines came up with a pretty good answer: They write:

"The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it's recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There's nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.”

Why yes, I thought.

Elsewhere on the site, in an amusing essay in which she talks about having her own work rejected repeatedly from This American Life, regular contributor Hilary Frank writes; “Specifically, This American Life is looking for stories with two main elements: the narrative action, or plot (in which one thing happens to the characters, and then another, and then another), and moments of reflection (where someone says something surprising about what the story might mean).”

Yes again.

Like most every piece of writing featured on the show, this is well said. They want work that has drama, that surprises, that toggles between the personal and the universal, and is also very, very well written. The fact that many of their contributors—David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Shalom Auslander—are successful published writers seems to indicate that these parameters translate well to the printed page.

Perhaps the model above is not the only one that works for memoirs, but the advice seemed to me well worth sharing. You can check it out in greater (perhaps excruciating) detail at




  1. Interesting.
    Lynn Price--on Behler Publishing's blog--said yesterday that, "It's a platform as long as there's an identifiable audience." That's different than "You've got to be well known beforehand."
    I'd appreciate your thoughts on Lynn's definition. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post. It's given me something to think about today.

    As a writer, I've always known conflict is crucial to a story. In real life, however, I believed it was something to be avoided.

    Then I entered a profession which forced me out of my comfort zone -- with experiences and outcomes I never could have imagined -- and I began to understand that where there is no conflict, there is no growth or change.

    Now, like Frodo Baggins, no matter how badly I desire it, I can't go back to the Shire. The view from my small corner of the world will never be as simple as it once was. And sometimes, I'm not sure how to deal with that.

    Thus the conflict continues ...

  3. Ira Glass gave a talk at the GEL conference in which he spoke at length about story and This American Life. It was very relevant to fiction. The video is on line at

    A highly recommended watch.

  4. "In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes."

    Reading a memoir like that is like watching a rock to see if it will move. It might over a few thousand years -- but who cares?

  5. It's good to know that there IS hope in getting a memoir published as long as a lesson is learned. I spend well over half my life learning lessons. Now all I need to do is get them onto the page in diamond form...

  6. Funny and Sad I Can Do

    Thanks for the link to "This American Life" submission requirements.

    They want:

    "- Work that surprises.

    - Work that's funny. Especially work that's both funny and sad.

    - Writing that works like journalism--even if it's fiction. That is, it describes and documents real things that happen to people."

    Don't know what happened to the rest of the DGLM blog though! (probably my computer)(oh well)

  7. I saw your posting about submissions and wanted to ask you to help spread the word about a writers competition. First Person Arts is looking for non-fiction and journalism-minded writers to submit to our nationwide competition First Person America: In These Hard Times. We're a Philadelphia-based non-profit organization dedicated to memoir and documentary art in all forms, and this year our goal is to attract essays, photos and films from all 50 states documenting how individuals and communities are coping with economic challenges. You can find out more about the competition, prizes and judges at

  8. Great post. My fave memoir is hands down JR Moehringer's 'The Tender Bar', where you actually see the main character evolve and grow through the book. It's very similar to the way I write, so your post certainly gives me hope for more publication! :)

  9. This American Life consistently reminds me that regardless of the genre, a (personal) story must have conflict; a beginning, middle, end; and always a resolution of some kind. Thanks for the great reminder for all of us closeted memoirists!

  10. i'm sorry to say this but why is it that US advice on writing always sounds like advice for screen writers ? it's always about the story, the plot, the conflicts, but a writer can be good at all that and have no style, no tone, no voice, no inner rhythm. and most of all, the only advice that is really worth it is : to read a lot. to see how the books we love work, and why. every time i read some advice for writers, i feel it's been written for people who are trying to be writers but who will never be if they need to be told what to do and how to do it...
    READ people ! and work hard. that's all.

  11. I found this post because you landed on Jane Friedman's best posts of the week. Congratulations! Your connection to Ira Glass and This American Life is excellent. Glass is a great teacher as well as a wonderful storyteller. I also agree with anonymous, above, about reading and learning from the greats. That's why I started my blog read, review, and learn in community as I write my own memoir.I'd love to connect with other lovers of this genre in the comment section there, also.

  12. How can a work surprise you all that much if it follows the same old formula? And if nonfiction writers shoehorn their material into this formula, isn't the end result a little suspect?

    All too often revelations at the end of a story feel entirely concocted. We know they are there because writers have internalized the rules. Our lives are not neat plots. A good many people are not fundamentally changed by even dramatic experiences. By focusing on drama drama drama you are failing to spotlight more subtle insights and truths. There are lots of other riches to be had. And I absolutely agree with Anonymous that style and language get shortchanged by guidelines such as these (even by literary magazines!), as does formal innovation.

    I love stories too. Dave Eggers' Zeitoun, which I just finished, was a wonderful reading experience (about genuine conflict) that I wouldn't trade for anything. But there are many forms that nonfiction writing -- whether memoir or personal essay or some other subgenre -- can take. Would that guidelines would simply say: Surprise us.


  13. Banned complain !! Complaining only causes life and mind become more severe. Enjoy the rhythm of the problems faced. No matter ga life, not a problem not learn, so enjoy it :)

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