No, Your Memoir’s Audience Isn’t “Everybody”

wtmrn2Are you planning on writing your memoir, hiding it in a locked drawer, and then burning it on your deathbed?  In that case, your memoir is definitely between you and you, and there’s no reason for you to read this article.

However, if you plan on letting anyone else read your finished memoir – whether it’s family members, or any stranger who happens to buy a copy – then this article is for you.

When you write a memoir (or anything else, for that matter), you’re writing to someone.  No, not in quite the same way you’d write a letter or an e-mail.  But there’s going to be someone on the other end of your message: your reader.

If you’re hoping to make a huge splash with your memoir, then you’ll obviously want your memoir to have many readers.  Those readers, collectively, are your audience.

Regardless of what you’re writing – whether it’s a magazine article, an academic essay, or a memoir —  it’s important to keep your readers in mind.

There’s a good chance you’ve written for a specific audience before but didn’t realize it.

Here’s an example.  Say you’re on vacation in Mexico.  You promised postcards to everyone you know.  One day you’re reclining on a cushioned lounge beneath a grass umbrella, just ten feet from a gentle lick of turquoise surf.  You’re leaning your forearms on a book in your lap and shuffling a stack of glossy postcards.  You take the pen out from behind your ear and begin to write:

Dear Mom:

The resort is beautiful.  You’d love the lunch buffet.  It reminds me of the spread on your 60th birthday cruise. Weather has been perfect.  Miss you and can’t wait to see you.  I have a pretty souvenir for you!

Next, you choose a fresh card and begin scribbling a note to your best friend and former college roommate:

Hey Barfbag,

Too bad you’re missing this orgy of loose women and free-flowing booze, you loser.  Haven’t been sober since I landed!  See ya for Joe’s Superbowl party on the 12th.

And finally, you write that obligatory postcard to the office, which will inevitably be posted on the break room refrigerator for your boss and all to see:

Hi gang,

Enjoying a break in sunny Mexico.  Thanks to everyone who worked so hard on the Davis deal last month.  Hope you’re all enjoying those normal hours again!  Looking forward to sharing a box of spicy Mexican chocolate when I return. 

You wouldn’t write the same way – or mention all the same things – to everyone you wrote to.

The tone you use in writing to your mother (affectionate, thoughtful) will be vastly different from the tone you use with your college buddy (informal, sarcastic).  That tone will change slightly again when you address your boss and co-workers (friendly, polite).

Likewise, you’ll choose different words to address different people.  For mom: “beautiful”, “perfect”, “pretty”.  For the best friend: “barfbag”, “orgy”, “loser”.  And finally, for the workplace: “enjoying”, “thanks”, “sharing”.

Additionally, the content of your story will change to suit the reader.  Regardless of whom you speak to, you’re talking about the same trip to Mexico.  However, you’ll be selective about what you share about that experience, depending on whom you’re addressing.  You told your mom about things that would be important to her: “The resort is beautiful.” “You’d love the lunch buffet.”  “I miss you and can’t wait to see you.”  You leave out the part about the women and drinking.

But when it’s time to address your buddy, you don’t bother mentioning the weather or the lunch buffet – he wouldn’t care about that.  Instead, you mention “loose women” and “free-flowing booze,” plus the upcoming “Superbowl party on the 12th.

Your co-workers hear about “sunny Mexico,” and you promise to bring them some “spicy Mexican chocolate”.  You’re courteous and keep things professional.

That’s how you gear your writing toward a specific audience.

Now, if I ask you whom you want the audience for your memoir to be, you might say, “Everybody!  I want everyone in the world to buy my memoir.”  But that’s not going to happen.  You might sell your memoir to a lot of people – but who are they?  Or maybe more importantly, who do you want them to be?

When you write for an audience of “everyone”, you risk writing something dull, watered-down and uninteresting. Your writing will be more engaging if you write to a specific group of people. Knowing your audience has two big benefits.

First, it helps you write better.  Instead of writing a bland manuscript for “everyone,” you’ll feel freer to write in specifics.  Second, having a clear picture of your audience helps you develop a sales and marketing strategy.

Let me also make it clear that even if you have a specific audience in mind, that doesn’t mean someone outside of that audience won’t read and enjoy your book, but having a narrow focus in mind when you’re writing is crucial.

Decide ahead of time exactly to whom you’re writing.  You’ll write a better book.

At a reading/booksigning for Read My Hips at Barnes & Noble.

Kim Brittingham is the author of Read My Hips: How I Learned to Ditch Dieting, Love My Body and Live Large, and Write That Memoir Right Now.


Featured Author: Belinda Nicoll

wtmrn featured author logo

outofsyncIn 2001, when a couple leaves South Africa for a stay abroad, they land at JFK International Airport on September 11th, unprepared for the sight of smoke billowing from the Manhattan skyline, and the horror of a second plane exploding into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.

Over the next ten years, as their host country confronts fundamental change of its own, their marriage buckles under the strain of their disparate experiences. With the international economic crisis making it all but impossible for them to return to their country, they relocate from California to the North, the South, and the Midwest searching for a place they can call home.

Against the backdrop of uncertainties in post-apartheid South Africa, Belinda Nicoll unfolds a contemporary and thought-provoking account of post-9/11 America’s tantalizing hopes and unexpected disappointments. Out of Sync is her insightful memoir about marital endurance that promises to enthrall anyone, expatriate or not, who has ever felt at odds with themselves or the world.

Belinda Nicoll is originally from South Africa. She expatriated to the United States in 2001, became a resident in 2004, and has held dual citizenship since 2010. She and her husband, Bruce, love traveling and share a keen interest in cultural diversity. Their journeys and careers have taken them through large parts of Southern Africa and America, Europe, Ireland, Canada, the Middle East, Mexico, and to exotic islands such as Mauritius, Phuket, The Comores, St. Thomas, and St. John. Belinda holds a BA degree in the social sciences and an MFA in Creative Writing. She was a talent agent and drama coach before venturing into the advertising world as copywriter and client service director. These days, she works as a teacher of creative writing and will soon complete her first novel, an epic mystery set in South Africa and the U.S., spanning four generations and exploring concepts of shamanism, archaeology, and intergenerational shame.

Out of Sync is available from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, Kalahari (S.A.) and of course, from Amazon.

Win the 5-CD Audiobook: Write That Memoir Right Now!

wtmrncdNeed some guidance writing your memoir?  Write That Memoir Right Now is available as an audiobook — and TWO lucky winners are going to receive it in this handy 5-CD set.

Here’s how to enter:

Go to our Contact page and send us a message using the form provided.  Be sure to send us your full name and e-mail address.  In the message box, please write “CD giveaway“. Deadline to enter is 12:00 midnight on Sunday, February 24, 2013.

TWO winners will be randomly chosen and contacted via e-mail.  Winners must provide a shipping address no later than 12:00 midnight, Sunday, March 3, 2013.  If we don’t hear from you by then, an alternate winner will be randomly chosen.

Good luck!

Featured Author: Sheila Hageman

wtmrn featured author logoSheila Hageman is a 41-year-old mother of three from Stratford, Connecticut who has defied all odds. A former stripper and nude model, she later became a college valedictorian and wrote Stripping Down: A Memoir (2012, Pink Fish Press).  Here’s what Sheila has to say about her debut memoir:

At twelve years old, everything changed for me with the discovery of my estranged father’s porn collection. Found locked away in a corner of the basement, the glossy images ignited in me an unrehagemanlenting desire for attention and adoration. I lost sight of my dream of being a writer and became obsessed with exercise, working out every day for hours and barely eating. I became that which I thought men adored—a stripper and a nude model.

Many years later when I discovered my mother had breast cancer, I was faced with who I had become and what I had used my body for. I quit stripping and returned to college to graduate as valedictorian; I also became a yoga teacher through which I learned how to take good care of my body and not be obsessive in my looks. I began writing again and then went to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Writing. At that time, reflections on my past as a stripper permeated my thoughts as I took on the new roles of mother, caregiver and wife. While helping my baby daughter take her first steps, I nursed my mother through the final stages of breast cancer and truly faced who I had become and who I had been. The resulting memoir, Stripping Down, was finally published in February of 2012. I am living my dream of writing everyday and helping other women to reach their own dream through exploring their lives in words.

Stripping Down can be purchased here.

How to Be a Happy Memoirist: Surviving Emotionally-Charged Writing

emoHow do you stay happy while you’re writing about unhappy things?  Is there one concrete thing we can do to develop a sort of “memoirist’s Teflon”, a state wherein we can write about our most gut-wrenching memories in stinging detail — but be able to step away from the desk with every hair in place?

To get more insight into the psychological ramifications of writing a memoir, I decided to pick the brains of a few other writers who’ve gotten through the big bad memoir-writing process and lived to tell about it.

girlbomb“Well, it was obviously no fun to dwell on painful memories – I got angry, I got sad, I got sentimental, and I got angry some more,” Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb told me. “But out of all the painful memories I had to re-encounter, it was especially hard for me to write about doing hard drugs, because I had to remember and recreate mental and physical sensations that I really didn’t want to experience anymore. I’d find my heart pounding uncomfortably hard when I wrote about being on cocaine, or I’d get a paranoid, dissociated feeling when writing about taking acid. One night I was writing about doing coke, and I freaked out and called a friend and went straight to her apartment, because I didn’t feel like I could stand to be alone right then. It was a very desperate, coked-up feeling.”

Erin Vincent wrote her memoir Grief Girl about her parents being in a road accident when she was 14.

griefgirl“I decided to write it in my teenage voice, so forced myself to relive everything,” she said. “I realize now that I retraumatized myself. Some days as I wrote, my body would be covered in hives. I went to the hospital one night with internal bleeding, felt exhausted most of the time…I became depressed for a while. Some days I could only write for 15 minutes before needing a nap!”

Janice suffered some similar exhaustion and psychosomatic phenomena:

“I experienced a period of intense exhaustion, where I thought I had narcolepsy or leukemia or multiple sclerosis or something, because I’d be working on the book, and I’d get so dizzy and tired that I’d have to lay down on the floor by my desk and shut my eyes for a while.”

But, Janice also says, “It got easier with each draft. The first draft was the hardest, and then I had to go deeper for the second draft. But I’d already had some practice in confronting the material, so at least none of it was a surprise anymore. By the third draft, I could see it as a story with characters, and not so much as real people and events. And now it’s like someone else wrote it; it feels so distant from my current life.”

David Matthews, author of Ace of Spades, had a completely different experience.

aceofspades“I didn’t find the process of writing about painful things to be inherently painful. I think that for me, I was cushioned a bit in that I was a writer who decided to write a memoir, rather than an individual who just wanted to tell my story. Being a writer enabled me to approach the subject matter as a work, rather than something that had happened ‘to’ me.”

So there may be some hope of a painless process yet! But what if your memoir-writing experience does end up being as visceral as Janice or Erin’s? Will that really be such a bad thing?

“I had to revisit some very painful experiences, and own up to things I’d done that I really wasn’t proud of,” Janice admits. “But now that I’ve been honest about those things, I’m glad – writing the book helped me put a lot of old demons to rest.”

Aside from getting some kind of personal pay-off from surviving an emotional writing journey, perhaps the trip will be more bearable if we can get over ourselves and think of how the final product might serve someone else. Wade Rouse, author of three memoirs including Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler, points out:

americasboy“(Writing a memoir is) not for the weak of heart, and there is great risk, not the least of which is emotionally. But you know by writing your truth you are helping someone else reach his. You also know that people will, undoubtedly, be hurt in some way, big or small, by what you are sharing. Still, the very best memoirs force us to hold up a collective mirror to our faces and take a good, long, hard look at our lives, even though they reflect someone else’s.”

In order to write her memoir My One-Night Stand With Cancer, Tania Katan got visceral with her memories on purpose.

“In order to access all of the feelings around cancer, chemotherapy, toxic relationships and unsavory phlebotomists, I had to go back and experience all of those things in my body. I would sit with a stack of journals and start reading about being in the oncologist’s office awaiting treatment, and that would trigger a vivid image of me in that space, and soon I was feeling the prick of the needle in my vein and tasting the bleach-like chemicals in my mouth. That’s the only way for me to write an accurate description of what I went through and by doing so, I allow my audience to experience these things as if they’re going through it, too.”

onenightWade told me, “It’s impossible to pen a memoir—about any piece of your life—by distancing yourself from your life. You must laugh, and cry, and scream, and writhe, just like you did the first time. That’s when you know you’re getting it right … and real.”

I asked Erin: Do you think one sacrifices an intensity of writing by attempting to keep past emotions at a distance?

“Absolutely! That’s why I immersed myself in my past. I wanted ‘Grief Girl’ to be raw and immediate. I wanted the reader to feel they are there with me.”

Janice agreed. “Unfortunately, I think you have to be a ‘method writer’ – you have to use your emotions in the same way actors do in order to perform well. You have to dredge up the ugly stuff and use it, or your writing will be flat.”

So I guess we all just have to batten down the hatches and hold on tight. If you’re determined to write a memoir, you’ll want to bring forth the most remarkable work you have in you. Be willing to dig deep, to sob and pummel pillows. Surely, though, there are SOME things we can do to minimize the trauma and stay positive.

Janice confided, “I’ve been in therapy for the last eleven years; my book is dedicated to my shrink, Judith. There’s no way I could have come to a place in my life where I was stable and happy and motivated enough to tackle this project had I not been in therapy. She cheered me through the draft, and held my hand through the really hard parts.”

Therapy was also helpful to Tania, “both creatively and personally. It doesn’t hurt to learn about yourself in-depth when you’re trying to write about yourself in-depth, you know?”

Janice found other ways to keep the more bleak aspects of her memoir from coloring her here-and-now (which may be especially helpful if you can’t afford a therapist):

“I tried to have as much fun in the present as possible. And I tried to treat writing like it was any other job. I set goals, and rewarded myself for working hard.”

“My advice would be to think of the protagonist of your memoir as a character, rather than as a literal (no pun intended) version of yourself,” David suggested. “The protagonist (who only happens to be you) suffers, laughs, loves—the writer (who also only happens to be you) records these events in an exciting, meaningful, and truthful way. You’re the court stenographer.”

Tania had a great idea:

“Keep two journals. One is the Emotional Journal. The other is the Writing Journal. Allow yourself the freedom to write all of the feelings and fucked up thoughts you have in your Emotional Journal without editing. Let the words sit for a bit, then go back and read. See how fucked up you were just a few days ago. Smile and relish in the fact that you have grown. Now get dressed and grab your Writing Journal and start crafting a coherent story. When you feel like you are not being true to the emotional content of your story, go back to your Emotional Journal and access the real, raw stuff. But whatever you do, don’t mistake one journal for the other. Both serve a purpose. One is a soliloquy and the other is a dialogue.”

Since Wade’s first memoir America’s Boy was composed of short chapters and vignettes from his life, he says he “tried to intersperse the difficult parts with big doses of humor, and memories of good times. That helped me come back from the abyss many times.”

Wade’s experience is a reminder that we’re not required to write our first drafts in any prescribed order. We don’t have to write chronologically or linearly. When we get through a rough chapter, we’re free to give ourselves a break by working on a “fun part” before diving into another harrowing event from the past. We’re in control. (Why is that so hard to remember?)

What memoirists like Janice, Tania, David, Erin and Wade have shared with me only reaffirms what I think I already knew. My fellow memoirist-in-the-making Mary Elizabeth said it best:

“…as you’re writing and reliving things, you’re deeply aware that you got through them.”

Hey…that’s right. We got THROUGH our pasts! We made it!

We’ve got everything we need to make the journey back again. We know the terrain. In fact, each of us is the world’s foremost expert on our own pasts! Plus, we’re going back armed with the insight of age and experience. You’ve got my own experience, and the travel tales that “been-there” memoirists have been kind enough to share.

Featured Author: Katherine “Cookie” Jones

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Katherine “Cookie” Jones wrote and published a memoir titled I Know a Way Out.  She describes it this way:

featured author jones I Know a Way Out is an account of my life’s journey towards a sense of peace and fulfillment, culminating in personal acceptance of a greater power that resides in all of us.  Emphasizing issues relating to family, much of my work centers on my experiences and interactions in the household of my aunt and uncle after the deaths of my parents, six months apart. While I had a connection with my aunt, my relationship with my uncle posed numerous challenges as a result of his pattern of sexual abuse, beginning when I was a young child and lasting through my teen years. As I moved into my twenties, I began to find some measure of independence through my career path, but events took a downward turn when my uncle decided that I should move out of the home in which I was raised.  Later, I describe starting a new life with my husband, Jay, but this association failed to provide the happiness that I desired.  In concluding sections of I Know a Way Out, I portray the events of my present, depicting a new life with my “stranger” as well as the spiritual re-awakening that I experienced at the age of thirty-one. Although grounded on a level of despair and uncertainty, this narrative frequently injects a spirit of hope based on my personal faith. As a whole, I wish to inspire the reader by rendering the notion that spirituality will furnish the power to transcend the relative limitations that life may present.”

You can read I Know a Way Out in paperback, or on your Kindle:

Buy the paperback here.

Buy the Kindle edition here.

Memory & Perception in Memoir: Is One Person’s “Inaccuracy” Another Person’s “Truth”?

wtmrn1Funny things, memory and perception. They can make a single event seem like three completely different experiences to three different people – all of whom were at the same place, at the same time.

When I’m teaching groups of first-time memoirists, there’s always someone who fears being accused of lying. And yes, there’s always a chance that someone might read your finished memoir and say, “Hey, that’s not exactly how it happened!”

Naturally, I encourage you to tell the truth. You certainly shouldn’t be fabricating anything; that would be fiction, not memoir.

However, after your sister reads your memoir for the first time, she could point a finger and say, “Hey, you wrote that Uncle Jerry’s 40th birthday barbecue was on a Saturday, but I know for a fact it was on a Wednesday. I know because when we came home, we sat on the family room floor and watched The Facts of Life, and that was always on a Wednesday. And by the way, Mommy was not wearing her culottes that day. She’d already ripped them by then, and recycled the material for a throw pillow for my bed.”

Even if your sister’s 100% correct, that doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is untrue.

So you remember that day differently than she does. So what. What’s important is that your entire family was together when Uncle Jerry got that chicken bone wedged in his throat, had to be rushed to the hospital, and lost the ability to speak forevermore.

Over time, small details can blur and merge in our memories. What’s more important in a memoir scene is what transpired and how you felt.

Here’s another example. You and your brother could’ve had an explosive argument, during which he confessed to kissing your wife on New Year’s Eve when you were in bed with the flu. If we were to ask you about it ten years later, you might remember the room being ice cold, your brother sneering in arrogant satisfaction, a feeling of impending nausea lurking at the back of your throat.  But if we asked your brother about the same argument that same ten years later, he might remember the room feeling uncomfortably close, his own heart racing and a dew of hot dread forming on his forehead. He might recall your strange indifference, the way you sat there staring at the wall, as if you didn’t care at all. He felt a pang of pity for your wife and disgust for your apathy and let out a bitter, ironic laugh.

Same scene, two perceptions.  But can we honestly say that either of you are lying about what happened?  No.

Want to have a little fun with this? Write down a memory of a time, place, or situation from your past. Next, interview someone who was also there. Without giving away anything you wrote, ask him or her to detail the event. Compare your recollections. I guarantee the results will be fascinating.

Sit back, listen and get inspired to complete your memoir.  Learn how.