By Suzanne Handler
If you intend to write a memoir, be prepared, because controversy and conflict may follow. Anticipate that someone may argue your facts, your interpretation of those facts, or even your reason for writing what you know as the truth. A memoirist, above all, must have courage.
What possible obstacles could be strewn in your path on the laborious journey from intending to write a memoir to publishing it? To begin with, some people, whose collaboration on details you feel are essential to the veracity of your story, may resist supporting your efforts for any number of reasons: they don’t want you to reveal personal information that might embarrass them, even by association; they are just plain ornery, cantankerous folks who don’t want you to realize your literary dream; or, as was true in my case, they are no longer among the living – and, therefore, they simply can’t provide the details you’d like to have. By the way, don’t be surprised if individuals near and dear to you suggest, in no uncertain terms, that spilling the proverbial beans is tantamount to destroying the reputation of your family, or that the continuation of a long-cherished friendship will be in jeopardy if you dare to tell your story.
But there’s one way to overcome all of these obstacles. If you believe in your message, and are truly committed to telling your tale to the world at large, then by all means do not fall sway to these protestations. Also, be ready to reroute your path over any detours you encounter until you find a way to reach your goal.
Laying the groundwork for your memoir is an important first step. If, for example, you are revealing family secrets in your book, then I believe it is a good idea to inform your relatives, at least the immediate ones, of your intentions. I guarantee that if you do this ahead of time, a casual announcement around the dinner table (or a strategically emailed declaration) that you plan to write a book (whether the memoir is controversial or not) can ease the way to acceptance of your story once it actually appears on the printed page. Initial grumbling from angry or embarrassed relatives may be infuriating or even hurtful, but it’s better to suffer these arrows at the onset of your project than after the fact. Imagine a well-meaning neighbor on your mother’s block breaking the news that your sizzling tell-all has earned you a coveted hot-seat on the Dr. Drew or Oprah show. It would be easier for your mother to hear that news directly from the source, so repeat these words to yourself frequently: “Sooner is better than later.”
Which brings me to my next area of caution: reader reviews. With the immense reach of such book-selling giants as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and the constant flow of information via social media sources such as Twitter and Facebook, word of your story has the potential to go viral. That’s a good thing, and it’s what every writer aspires to have happen. Right? After all, you have worked long and hard to complete your book, and whatever your goal was in writing it, you want the greatest number of people to buy and read it. The issue is that whether your memoir is a blockbuster or a flop, it is difficult to ignore the inevitable naysayers waiting in the wings to slam it in a review. Writing a memoir is to expose yourself, and sensitive aspects of your life, to the scrutiny of others. Once again, I advise you to be both prepared and courageous in the face of such criticism. In some cases, you may be surprised or even devastated by how others perceive your precious pages. Perhaps the wisest course to take with reviews, and it is a difficult one to follow, is this: don’t read them. Or if you do, don’t take the negative critiques personally.
If you do choose to write a memoir, you are definitely not alone. By checking the book section in any number of big-city newspapers, it is clear that reading memoirs is a popular pastime. It seems we never get our fill of other people’s angst or misadventures. As the would-be author of such a tale, you may be thwarted by literary agents and other professionals in the business (and it is a business, to be sure) who tell you the only successful tell-alls are those written by the famous few who populate our planet. Only then, they might say, will the cloistered world of traditional publishing open wide in eager anticipation of your work. I now know that old adage is simply untrue. All you need is a truly great story, whether tragic, triumphant, or titillating, and an exceptional amount of perseverance laced with courage, to write and publish a successful memoir.
Suzanne Handler has been published in the Denver Post, The Rocky Mountain News, and Senior Wire News Service. A major focus of Ms. Handler’s 26-year career as Director of Community Education Resources included writing and presenting self-esteem building curricula to elementary and middle school students and their parents, as well as teachers, school psychologists, and social workers in the communities she served. As a result of these efforts, Ms. Handler understands the stigma, and lack of public awareness, associated with mental illnesses in our society. Based in the Denver, Colorado area, Suzanne is the author of The Secrets They Kept: The True Story of a Mercy Killing That Shocked a Town and Shamed a Family.