How I Wrote a Memoir

by Emma in


Today marks two years since I started the gut-wrenching, soul-stirring, all-consuming act of writing a memoir. I thought I'd mark the occasion by sharing what I've learned along the way. There are many approaches to writing a book, but here's what worked for me:

  • Learn more about writing
  • Think about marketing
  • Form a team
  • Set a schedule
  • Find some self-confidence
  • Persevere

Learn more about writing While my job title includes the word "writer," I was not in the habit of writing creative nonfiction in my spare time until I took a class at the Loft Literary Center almost five years ago. Since then, I have also read several invaluable books about writing. Because I didn't have much experience shaping long narratives or writing dialogue, educating myself was a must.

Think about marketing If you have any hope of getting published, you must be willing to market yourself and your work. While self-promotion can feel a little icky (I remember feeling ill the first time I mentioned my blog on Facebook), it's essential to finding an audience. To learn more about book marketing, I subscribed to blogs by authors and literary agents, and I also took a class about the logistics of getting published.

Form a team Writing can be a very solitary pursuit—often delightfully so—but don't underestimate the benefit of seeking wisdom and direction from people you respect. Early on, I got comments and encouraging emails from my faithful blog readers. I also formed a writing group to gain more specific, craft-centric feedback. When I was wrapping up the draft of my full-length manuscript, I lined up a team of nine readers (including my writing group, a professional editor, and a published author) to conduct a full review. Finally, I asked for feedback on my book title, query letter, and book proposal from my manuscript readers, as well as from a friend who is a top-notch marketing professional and journalist.

Set a schedule When I prepared to begin my memoir, I kissed my social life and prime-time television goodbye. Okay, that's a slight exaggeration, but I did make some sacrifices to write a book while also giving my attention to a baby, a marriage, and a full-time job. Not to mention my health. I accomplished it by setting both short- and long-term goals.

I published the first draft of the book serially in what I dubbed a "blogoir" (blog meets memoir) format. Before I set up the website, I sat down and outlined the first 40 or so posts. Each post was a carefully crafted piece of the larger narrative. During the nine months that I wrote like this—what amounted to 75 posts—I spent an hour or two each evening writing and was able to publish a new piece every four or five days. I was careful not to reveal the entire plot of the book online, which is why I went offline for the next phase of the project.

For the next seven months, I finished the plot and edited like mad. It was during this period that the heart of the story—the "so what?"—really developed. I continued to spend every evening writing after my daughter went to bed, and I also scheduled three- or four-hour sessions on Saturdays where I'd sneak out to a coffee shop. When I got close to one of my self-inflicted deadlines, I would take a day off from work to hole up somewhere without internet access.

At various points, I sought feedback from my book-writing team. After the nine readers did a full review of the spiral-bound manuscripts that I gave them, I spent a month doing substantial revisions, including everything from adding more dialogue, to going into more detail about things that I was nervous to write about, to changing the opening altogether.

Eighteen months after I began, I was ready to start querying literary agents. I polished up my query letter, created a spreadsheet of agents I was interested in working with, took a deep breath, and sent my stuff out there. This was right around time that I had my second child, so I had a lot of other things on my plate. Roughly four months after finishing the manuscript, I signed with an agent, but not before doing another few rounds of edits that she recommended.

So today—exactly two years after I published my first post—my memoir is being pitched to editors. There are no guarantees at this point, but if this book makes it into print, I am so excited for the what is to come—everything from working with a talented editor to putting together a killer marketing plan and finding creative ways to connect with potential readers.

Find some self-confidence When you're writing a memoir, it's pretty much go big or go home. Nobody wants to read a watered-down account of some random person's life. Frankly, it takes a serious leap of faith to share intimate details of your story not only with complete strangers, but also with the people closest to you. My husband has read more about my past love-life than he probably wanted to know. Co-workers, acquaintances, and various parent-like figures know precisely where my husband and I consummated our marriage. Ahem. You get the drift. Writing memoir takes a lot of nerve.

Persevere This one should go without saying, but it's critical—not only for writing a book, but also for attempting to get that book published. There were multiple times when I crawled into bed next to my husband after a night of writing and said something like, "I want to throw my book in the garbage." And I wasn't fishing for encouragement. I was serious. Having read a lot of writing blogs, I think this is a universal experience for writers. The key is to take the project out of the (usually metaphorical) trash can and keep going, sometimes after letting go of things that weren't working.

So that's it, dear readers. This is what I've learned in the course of two years. Even if this book never sees the light of day, it will have been worth the effort. It's true what they say—life is about the journey, and writing this book has been a real treat.

*****

I Want to Know Do you like to write? If so, what do you like to write? Is "write a book" on your life to-do list? If you had unlimited time and talent, what kind of book would you want to write?

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