When I decided to write a memoir I had a certain idea of what a memoir was. I’m sure we all have our own expectations as readers when we pick up a book labeled “memoir”. I know I do.
As I’m sure Oprah did. I didn’t like how Oprah publicly flogged James Frey in front of millions of people. I don’t believe it was Frey’s fault though. Oprah made a huge mistake that made such an event possible. She neglected to define what memoir was for herself. She neglected to examine the vast possibilities of memoir.
When I decided that I wanted my book to be categorized as a memoir I quickly realized that I needed to make sure that my definition of what a memoir was fit into that genre. I needed to define it for myself. There are some books that actually have the word memoir on its cover. That makes it easy. But some books don’t say memoir like ‘A Million Little Pieces’. That can make things a little foggy. We all need to define memoir for ourselves before we flog someone for not meeting our expectations. I like that memoir authors’ seem more up front and open about the idea of their books having embellishments and not being as accurate as a bio.
The movie Great Expectations with Ethan Hawk defines Memoir in its first few lines for me: I’m not going to tell my story as it happened, I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.
How much of a memoir can be a bold face lie before someone labels it fiction? Perhaps Oprah knows. Does anyone recall ‘A Million Little Pieces’ ? I wasn’t into memoir then like I am now when Oprah busted James Frey for recreating his version of the truth. Nobody dupes Oprah and simply walks away with it. I guess she felt cheated. When people read a memoir they do believe what they are reading actually occurred.
Unless you kept a detailed diary of everything that happened or recorded conversations with people while you were talking with them you may, as a writer, have to make some stuff up. Some facts should be left alone: You might not recall the weather the day you lost your virginity but you better remember who you were with.
When writing a memoir you might believe that doing research is unnecessary since every memory is entirely in your head. Cross referencing your memories with someone who was actually there is always a good idea.
I was talking to my younger sister (who refuses to even look at my memoir because of personal reasons) about our childhood and she made me realize that my memories are not always entirely accurate. She was also able to jog my memory about events and people that I had forgotten. I have had writers block with my memoir lately and I believe it’s because I’m doing to much big picture thinking and not enough writing down what I do vividly remember. It’s impossible to recall every minute detail but I can piece it all together by remembering the most important moments. Hopefully Oprah won’t have my story fact checked. Then again the publicity might be worth it.
I’ve heard a writer say that memoir does not sell very well. But does memoir pay off? I guess it depends on your motive for writing your story. Many people feel like their “story” should be told. Even my 87 year old aunt (whom I consider to be more of a mother figure in my life than merely my Tia) was once told that her life would make a good book or movie. My Tia almost brags about it.
I tell her that she should let me write it down. Of course that seems like a daunting task to undertake. But the point is she feels her “story” is worth sharing. If it would sell is not what concerns me. I do feel that simply the act of telling her story would be very beneficial to her. 87 years old and she still weeps every time she recalls the way she was raised.
I chose to write a memoir about a particular time in my life when I decided to go after what I wanted verses what I actually felt I deserved. I would tell anyone willing to listen about my “story” even lovers, family, my wife, as well as my mistress!
But it wasn’t until I actually wrote it down and examined myself through older wiser eyes that I saw what I needed to see. I felt healed. I discovered a truth that helped me to put it all into perspective.
So does memoir pay off? It truly depends on what it is you are looking for. If you feel compelled to write it down then do it. You may discover something more important than fame or riches.