Guest Post: Lives on paper: Five Questions to Ask Before Beginning a Memoir (Anne Wainscott-Sargent)

Today, I’m pleased to host master storyteller and fellow 2012 Blogathoner Anne Wainscott-Sargent on my blog. Responding to the often overwhelming concerns that can arise when contemplating writing a memoir, Anne has generously shared her wisdom on getting started.

Lives on Paper: Five Questions to Ask Before Beginning a Memoir
by Anne Wainscott-Sargent

?What could be simpler to understand than the act of people writing about what they know best, their own lives? But this apparently simple act is anything but simple, for the writer becomes, in the act of writing, both the observing subject and the object of investigation, remembrance, and contemplation.?
— Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives

You don?t have to look farther than’s list of top biographies and memoirs of 2011 to know that this is a popular genre.

Everyone has a story to tell, right? Yes, but you need to think carefully before jumping into a memoir narrative.

First, ask yourself, ?Why do I want to write this story?? You need a compelling reason to tackle what can be a painful process ? depending on your topic. In my case, I was mourning my mother?s passing to lung cancer and wanted to share the stories of other moms and daughters who were lost too soon to smoking. I wanted to help women quit smoking or never start by putting a human face to the toll of tobacco. Understanding your motivation will help you commit to the project and see it through.

Second, ?Who do I want to reach with this story?? Many aspiring memoir authors are motivated by a sense of family legacy ? of passing on their family story to their kids and their kids? children. That?s definitely the motivation of my second memoir I am finishing now on my children?s love of bedtime stories. However, if you want book sales and recognition as an author, your memoir needs to find an audience. Figure out who would enjoy your story ? and think critically about whether your story is compelling enough to make them want to buy your book. For my memoir, A Breath Away, I decided to target women — young and old ? as well as families who have either lost a loved one to smoking or who are dealing with tobacco addiction and are looking for motivation to quit. I also reached out to oncology nurses ? they are both caregivers to the terminally ill and many smoke.

Third, ?What research do I need to do to make my story credible and real?? Unless you are writing strictly from your own life, you will need to do research. It may be a place where the story takes place, or a time period. Or, it may be the details of a certain event in your story that needs to be confirmed by others who were there.

Fourth, ?How do I make my story come to life ? and make it truly compelling?? First, you need to write well and with heart. Show, don?t just tell. Paint a picture. Transport your readers into your story. In other words, write like a novelist.

To get into a storytelling mode, read biographies and pinpoint what made the great ones great. Was it the larger-than-life personality or historic setting? Was it the rich description and pacing — the journey that the writer took you on? Was it how the writer crafted the story ? making you feel like you were there? Hopefully, you can bring a little bit of all of these elements into your memoir.

[pullquote]Bottom line: If you want to write hard-to-put down memoirs, read. A lot.[/pullquote]

One of the best memoirs I?ve ever read is Open, Andre Agassi?s autobiography. I agree wholeheartedly with this review that said after 20 pages, he ?knew that this was unlike any other biography I had ever read. Couldn’t put it down. Couldn’t stop thinking about it. Agassi dug deeper inside than most of us ever will have to, to get to core of what made him so powerful as a player and so conflicted as a person. It is all conspicuously real: The small moments, the outlandish triumphs and the friendships that sustained him and/or corrupted him.?

I shared some of my favorite excerpts from Open in my book review posted last summer on The Writing Well.

Bottom line: If you want to write hard-to-put down memoirs, read. A lot.

Fifth, ?How do I avoid the pitfalls of a lawsuit?? Make sure you check your facts. In my memoir, I actually told the stories of multiple mothers and daughters, where I taped my interviews and had each daughter and one mother sign off on the accuracy of their story before I published the book. While memoir is often written through one person?s prism, don?t invite trouble by writing about family members with whom you are estranged. So says publisher Angela Hoy, in her blog post, ?Don’t Invite a Lawsuit with Your Memoir,? in Writers Weekly.

She recalls how she received an e-mail from a woman angry about her father?s book, and how she threatened to sue him for violation of privacy. Angela says if you’re estranged from someone, don’t write about them! If you do, give them a new name and write under a false name yourself so nobody can connect your book to that person. ?You can easily change names and identifying facts about people without harming the integrity of your story,? she says.

Finally, here is an excellent blog post by Karen Walker, author of the memoir, Following the Whispers, about the do’s and don?ts of memoir writing.

A key takeaway from her is not to demonize anyone in your life; rather, make the family members or others in your story fully dimensional ? showing their frailties and their redeeming virtues.

Over a nearly two-decade in-house and consulting communications career, Anne Wainscott-Sargent has built a solid record as an award-winning business communicator and “strategic storyteller” serving the technology, higher education, and government public health sectors. Her clients include Honeywell, NCR Corporation, Cbeyond, The University of Georgia Terry College of Business, The Wharton School, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2005, she wrote an anti-smoking memoir after losing her mother to lung cancer. Her blog, The Writing Well, celebrates excellence in writing and storytelling. Anne is a member of the National Association of Science Writers, the Atlanta Writers Club and the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, where she served as the 2011 communications director.

Read Anne?s blog, The Writing Well, and visit her company?s website.

Posted in writing & publishing.

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