Ten things I’ve learned as I struggle to write a memoir

Oh boy, this is so much harder than I imagined it would be. I figured after returning to the U.S. from four years living in Qatar, I’d whip out the story of my experience and voila! Book. After all, I am an English language specialist, a grammarian of the pickiest kind (yes, you need to use the Oxford comma; no, you cannot place a semicolon where a regular comma belongs unless…). Writing a book should be pretty easy, right?

No, so much no.

1. There are loads of different genres within memoir

Love, grief, coming-of-age…. Who knew that all of these genres have obligatory scenes that must be included for the book to work? Who knew that metaphors in writing can be considered “too happy” in their connotations for a dramatic scene to work (laying at the bottom of a stairwell like a broken Christmas cookie left on the baking sheet: too happy to show rock bottom).

2. Transcendence is everything.

A memoir has to show how the writer transcended during the main event of her memoir. She has to be a changed person, for better or for worse (and both draw readers). So how was I changed by my experience in the Middle East?

For starters, I’m definitely a better teacher. The quality of colleagues I was working alongside and projects I was involved in made that happen. Also, I know I’m a better person because I’ve re-evaluated some of my personal values regarding relationships thanks to a hard lesson learned.

What else?

I’m physically stronger although my central nervous system has weakened. My political views have shifted from ultra liberal and all-inclusive to a little more well, that’s kinda fucked up regarding some cultural practices. Also, trying to write about all of these things is a little too ambitious for one book.

3. A memoir has to say something bigger about the world at large

You see, the problem with memoirs written by nobodys like me is precisely that: nobody knows me. Why should they care to read my story? Because it is only one example of a bigger picture and draws attention to something others can relate to or are curious about in their own lives.

I’m still struggling to figure out what I want the overarching message to be. Perhaps that people are mostly good even though we can do some really messed up stuff?

4. Publishing books is a business

Luckily, I attended the Atlanta Writers Conference in October. Even better, I was bold enough to book appointments for every opportunity I could: a manuscript critique, a query letter critique, and a pitch. And because I took the chance to put myself out there, I learned just how unprepared I was and how much knowledge I was lacking, which was a good thing.

Agents, editors, and publishers are in the business of producing a book that will sell. Sure, writers are confident they’ve got a great story to tell, and agents as well as editors may agree with us; however, they have to know that your story is marketable and to whom specifically. Which means…

5. You have to picture on which shelf at the bookstore your story will sit

Not just which bookshelf your memoir will sit on, but between which comparable titles. Agents, editors, and publishers want to work with an author who is well read in her genre and has a specific target audience in mind to buy her books.

6. Have your manuscript complete and revised in its entirety before trying to sell it

Seems obvious, right? Well, if you know me at all, you know that I tend to jump right into things that excite me without much, if any, hesitation. I had no idea what the expectations were for meeting with people in the publishing industry. I was so excited for the chance to meet with them one-on-one so soon after I’d gotten started that I just took what I’d written and ran with it. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it because I learned so much from the experience. I just wasn’t able to get much detailed feedback because my content was still forming.

7. How do editors decide whether a manuscript is a go or no-go?

At the Editor’s Q&A panel, they were asked this question. Voice was the first answer, meaning that the writer has an original tone. Character development was another response. Does the editor want to spend time with them? A serious sense of purpose and sentence structure was another response, meaning What is the book trying to say? They will also consider the marketability of a book.

8. Should I self publish my memoir?

Sometimes agents or editors will take on a previously self-published book. However, it’s tricky to repackage it if there’s already a big fan base because it’s tough to make the content fresh. Also, they will look at the price point of books that were previously self published. Would readers be willing to pay more for a book produced by a publisher?

9. Memoirs are the hardest genre for agents and editors to acquire

This is because a memoir should have original content yet tell a relatable story in a different way. It seemed to me that the panel of editors struggle to find a memoir whose content is novel yet meets the standard conventions while using relatable, authentic characters that they want to spend time with as the read.

10. The story a writer means to tell may not necessarily be the story that needs to be told

I jotted this note down at the conference because it both surprised me yet was relatable. The story I started out writing has transformed so many times that I’ve had to step away from it for a good while to extract myself from the events. It’s been a delightful experience to have the time, space, and distance from living in Doha to enable myself to be intentional about the story I want to tell rather than emotionally attached to the events themselves that occured during my time there.

So there you have it: a handful of months writing, attending conferences, and even hiring a coach to help me along the way and this is where I’m at.


I’d love to hear about anyone else’s experience with memoir writing and what they’ve learned along the way. I’d also love to learn about something you’re struggling to figure out that isn’t memoir writing. What’s challenging you now?

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