Can a memoir be a self-help book? For that matter, can a self-help book be a memoir? These questions were posed to me recently in a one-on-one memoir coaching session and got me thinking about the many such books I’ve handled, edited and coached into being and how writing a self-help memoir can best be done. Here are my thoughts.
Let’s start with that question. The quick answer is yes: A memoir can be a piece of self-help writing, whether it be in the form of an essay, an Op-Ed or a book-length piece. The far more complex question is how to successfully make it so.
How to Write a Self-Help Memoir
I define memoir as what you know after something you’ve been through, andwhenever I say this or write this, someone somewhere invariably groans. I know. But get over it. And if you are utterly new to this idea, read this post on what memoir is about and then come back here and continue.
But let’s be clear: The idea that memoir is about what you know after something you’ve been through does not mean that all memoir has to be trauma-related. No, it does not. Something you’ve been through might include raising a child or adopting a dog; it might be learning to meditate or taking over a plot of a garden in a cooperative urban space and finding a new community in which to grow.
Memoir can be trauma-based, too, of course, and can be written after what you know following recovering from years of abuse or addiction. But memoir is not about that trip to safety or sobriety. That journey is the illustration of how you know what you now know.
Applying this to a self-help book now becomes easy. You simply need to show us how you learned what you now know: How you learned to meditate; how your learned to put away the anger in favor of your own, personal growth; how you learned to find your own voice after the years of gaslighting that always accompanies sexual and emotional abuse.
What Does ‘Show Don’t Tell’ Mean?
“Show don’t tell” is perhaps the single most misunderstood sentence in writing advice. People give it, rarely follow it, can’t define it and mostly ignore the imperative imbedded in this short phrase.
Perhaps “show don’t tell” is never more important than in the writing of memoir where, if you merely show us what you did, we’ll be bored out of our socks in a page or two, but if you show us how you changed we’ll be your willing reader and an eager imbiber of your message.
Showing us your progression means leaving out wild declarations of success in favor of scenes where we actually witness that success. Perhaps for the first time in your life you walk into your family Thanksgiving dinner with the genuine, hard-won confidence that none of them can hurt you any longer. Don’t tell me you did that. Show me you doing it. What would that look like? What would you have to wear? Show me you dressing for that family meal, powering up as you do. Show me the breath you take as you steady yourself on the threshold of the family home. Show me their faces around the table and let me hear their dialogue as they attempt to return you to your previous pecking-order role. And then let us hear what you said — or decided no longer needed saying.
Perhaps you are finally going to be honest with your child about your drinking. Don’t tell me you are going to do it, or that you did it. Show me you doing it, complete with the body language and actual dialogue, and let me see her small face change as your story sinks in. That’s right: Don’t tell me her face changed. Just show me the scrinching of the otherwise smooth, young brow, the blinking of her eyes, the dawning of the recognition that this is the explanation that has been missing from her own tale of woe.
Why do Readers Read Memoir?
Never forget that readers are reading for their own transformation.Oh wait. You thought they were reading your stuff because of what you did? Oh. Dear. Sorry. No. Nope. No way. Even if we are reading the single most dramatic escape tale, we are doing so in no small part to feed our own sense of freedom or daring, courage or self-trust. Memoir is not about what you did. Memoir is about what you did with it. Keep that firmly in mind as you proceed.So show us your transformation so I can begin to inhabit mine.
How to structure that in a timeline or outline?Start with your argument. This is what you are willing to share with us after what you’ve been through. This is what the reader is reading for. This is what you know. And every piece of non-fiction is an argument. Maybe what you know is that there is no such thing as mastering meditation which is precisely why it is referred to as “a practice.” Maybe it took you quite a while to back off from trying to master meditating and merely apply the light touch of a regular practice. Okay. You know what you are arguing.
Make Lists When Writing Memoir
But what did you have to learn along the way to knowing that, and what do those scenes look like? Probably there is a scene of you teasing your sister, the holistic meditating person in your life who goes on yoga retreats. You’re a Type-A and you tease her all the time about her lifestyle. Sounds like Act One material to me. Then, later in the act, that Type-A self of yours winds up in the ER thinking you are having a heart attack. The doctor says “No, it’s a panic attack, and you can either take these drugs or you can learn to meditate.” Being Type-A, I think you know what you do next. And on we go as you show us you learning — trying, failing, succeeding– your way to practicing meditation.
But note the first phrase of the first sentence in the paragraph above: What did you learn? As you begin to make a list of scenes you will use to show us your own transformation, make another one that lists what you learned, step, by tiny step. This is the needed emotional content of those scenes and what each needs to illustrate. Put them together and write.
Three Short Tips on Writing a Self-Help Memoir
With these ideas in mind, how do we turn your story into a self-help book?
Here are three small tips for that.
- Challenge us
- Assist us
- Reward us
What do I mean by “Challenge us?” Just that. If we are reading your book on how you achieved sobriety or learned to meditate, chances are we are trying to do so, as well. Challenge us to turn the same unflinching eye on ourselves that you turned on your addiction. Show us your truth so we can be challenged to show our own.
What do I mean by “Assist Us?” Think of a unique device to provoke us to get to our own work by remaking the punch list in some way and providing for the reader some accountability for their own transformation.
And “Reward Us?” Get creative. Define the obstacles to your evolution one at a time and very clearly. Show us how you overcame each and show us how you learned what you now know to move through to the next obstacle.
Can You Publish Self-Help Memoir?
Any hybrid model book will be more difficult to sell, and a self-help memoir is just that — a hybrid of self-help and memoir. Publishing is a curious business that is about selling books. Getting too romantic about the business will get you into trouble every time. In short, writers write books, publishers make books and bookstores sell books. These are our prescribed roles. While you may or may not develop a genuine and wonderful relationship with an editor or two in a publishing house (I did), along the way, you may receive some very cold-blooded responses to your best work (I did this, as well). This is because publishers need to sell books, and if they cannot figure out how to sell yours, they’ll pass on it.
That being the case, if you write a self-help memoir, there will be some editors and agents who will tell you that they do not know where to place it on the bookshop shelves or in the Amazon categories. I know many wonderful writers who have redefined genres only to struggle with their editors’ reactions to the hybrid they turned in.
Is There a Good Example of a Hybrid Self-Help Memoir?
If you’d like to see a marvelous memoir/self-help book I worked on, look no further than Judith Henry’s A Dutiful Daughter’s Guide to Caregiving, in which you laugh and cry all the way through, but still come out with a strong working definition of all the terms and complexities of long-term caregiving to one’s family. I’ve mentioned this book before, I know, and for good reason. She thought this through from start to finish and along the way I learned a lot about how one author decidedly bucked the resistance of publishing to find her own comfort in asub-genre. Oh yeah, and it’s great.
If you’ve got the goods, get them on the page. In short: Try it. Try anything, in fact. I recently handled my first graphic memoir. It includes a remarkable tale of healing that carries in it encouragement for us all. Talk about hybrid. This book takes traditional publishing and stands it on its head.
Go do the same.
Want more help? Come see me in any one of my online classes.
Memoirama: Live, 90 minutes. Everything you need to write what you know.
Memoirama 2. Live, two hours. Limited to seven writers. What you need to know to structure a book.
How to Write Opinion Pieces: Op-eds, Radio Essays and Digital Commentary: Live, 90 minutes. Get your voice out into the world.
And keep in mind that I am now taking names for the July-December 2019 Master Class, the prerequisites for which are Memoirama and Memoirama 2.Live, once a month. Limited to seven writers. Get a first draft of your memoir finished in six months.
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