Usually I offer this statistic in the context of marketing: these same people often prove to be my best prospects, six months hence. I often joke about it, telling them to just keep my business card in their Rolodex – these are people old enough to know what a Rolodex is – just in case they eventually decide they could use a little help.
But what I’ve been thinking about recently is not just the barebones fact that half of my memoir clients have previously told me they’re writing their memoirs themselves and then they eventually give up, but also what they sometimes show me as the memoir work they’ve done. Typically at our first meeting they present me with a sheaf of papers, sometimes three pages, sometimes thirty. What I’m expecting when they tell me they’ll show me what they’ve done so far on their memoir is a rough draft, or a half-written book, or some substantial start to the project.
But what they usually actually have is a few random essays about significant moments from their past. They’ll show me a piece about their grandparents, or about fishing, or about a summer spent in New York City.
And then I realize why it is that they started out on the project themselves but then gave up: they’ve been working so hard on one perfect essay that they can’t imagine writing enough of these pieces to string together into a complete book. These clients may have spent weeks or even months in an adult ed narrative nonfiction class perfecting this one 1,000-word essay on fishing. How can they be expected to repeat that fifty or sixty more times to make a book? It’s no wonder they give up.
My style is different from theirs. As a journalist, I’m accustomed to collecting facts and details quickly to lay out the foundation of a story, and then asking the questions that will flesh it out. We start with those facts so near and dear to a journalist: Who, what, where, when. Then I ask them for more: more details, more memories, more description. This makes the story come alive.
It’s a different approach from drilling down into one memory, but there are plenty of ways to accommodate those previously drafted pieces as well. Sometimes I use my clients’ essays to inform myself about segments of their lives, and this helps me to know what areas to focus on; other times I’m able to include their essays in their entirety, as discrete chapters.
So the writing they did in an adult ed class or in a writing group or on their own doesn’t go to waste. And any writing is good writing practice, of course, even if the actual sentences crafted never see the light of day. But my value proposition is that I get the job done. I work from start to finish and thread together the whole story, without getting distracted trying to write the perfect essay on fishing or the impeccable description of a college trip to Europe.
I’m always happy to hear people say they’re working on their memoir themselves. Memoir writing is important and worthwhile whether you do it yourself or work with a writing consultant like me. But I’m especially happy when people who previously said they didn’t want any help reconsider. I know they’ve gotten their project off to a good start. And I know I can take that good start and turn it into a finish.
Do you have some pieces started toward your memoir project? Want to talk about how I can help you move your project along? Be in touch any time!