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The Autobiographer's Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir
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The Autobiographer's Handbook: The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir

by Jennifer Traig (Editor), Dave Eggers (Introduction)

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At last—the contemporary masters of memoir have come together to reveal their strategies and impart their advice. This book contains an unprecedented wealth of knowledge in one place.

In The Autobiographers Handbook, you're invited to a roundtable discussion with today's most successful memoirists. Let Nick Hornby show you how the banal can be


At last—the contemporary masters of memoir have come together to reveal their strategies and impart their advice. This book contains an unprecedented wealth of knowledge in one place.

In The Autobiographers Handbook, you're invited to a roundtable discussion with today's most successful memoirists. Let Nick Hornby show you how the banal can be brilliant. Elizabeth Gilbert will teach you to turn pain into prose. Want to beat procrastination? Steve Almond has the answer. Learn about memory triggers (Ishmael Beah: music) and warm-up exercises (Jonathan Ames: internet backgammon). These writers may not always agree (on research: Tobias Wolff, yes, Frank McCourt, no) but whether you're a blossoming writer or a veteran wordsmith, this book will help anyone who has ever dreamed of putting their story on paper, on writing themselves into existence.


Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review.

Put out by 826 Valencia, the San Francisco-based nonprofit Eggers started to provide creative writing instruction for middle and high school students, this book presents straightforward, practical ideas and advice from a double-handful of contemporary writers. Edited by memoirist Traig (Devil in the Details), a longtime 826 Valencia tutor, it's comprised largely of excerpts from wide-ranging, insightful round-table discussions among nonfiction practitioners like Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Nick Hornby (Housekeeping vs. the Dirt), Frank McCourt (Angela's Ashes) and Sarah Vowell (Assassination Vacation). To find the right topic, for example, Gus Lee (China Boy) suggests you "write about the biggest, scariest darn elephant in the living room of your soul." To decide which elements to edit, Laura Fraser (An Italian Affair) says, "nobody cares if you go to yoga on Tuesdays... unless it will contribute to the story or to the character that is you." Besides lessons on celebrating the ordinary and the importance of humor, contributors also offer ways to push through the inevitable writer's block and handle miffed family and friends. Their guidance, complemented by writing exercises and work plans, should prove useful, informative and motivating for writers at just about any level.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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The Autobiographer's Handbook

The 826 National Guide to Writing Your Memoir

By Jennifer Traig

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2008 826 National
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3092-5


Meeting Your Muse

Sifting through your life to find what's worth telling

The old chestnut holds that everyone has one good book in them — and that's probably true — but sometimes, instead, people end up writing the bad book that's in them. Maybe it's their college dorm years reimagined as a sci-fi fantasy. Maybe it's an unhinged, 5,000-page screed against The Man. These things happen when talents are mishandled. All writers take some time to find the right story to tell and the right way to tell it. In this chapter, you'll find your way there, learning how to cherry-pick the part of your life that will make the best memoir.

Let's begin by assuring you that you do have a story to tell. If your life has been ordinary in every way, that alone makes you strange. Some truly wonderful memoirs have been written about perfectly normal lives. Normal doesn't mean boring. It's just all in the telling.

Or maybe you really are an oddball, the albino orphan raised by itinerant drag queens. If so, you've won the memoir lottery. Your book will almost write itself, and your job will be editing it down. When every second of your life has been interesting, the challenge is deciding what, exactly, to focus on.

Or maybe the subject of your memoir hasn't even happened yet. Maybe you're dying to challenge yourself in some way — live in an isolated lighthouse, go a full year without showering, or embark on an all-legume diet — and record the experience in writing. These sorts of experiments have produced some great books, too.

If anything, it's likely you have too many options. Let's start by steering you away from these two right off the bat:

I'm the oldest surviving Lusitanian widow/sweetheart of vaudeville/Hayes administration cabinet member.

Oldest anything makes the reader assume your book will be creaky, even cranky. Also, because your life has been so long, the reader fears your book will be, too. So if you choose to go down this road, be sure to focus on the especially fascinating parts, ideally involving spies, Prohibition, or the discovery of radium:

I'm the world's youngest brain surgeon/astronaut/discoverer of radium.

Everyone resents a prodigy. Maybe you should spend the next few years wasting your potential shooting craps or watching women's volleyball, then write a book about being a fallen child prodigy instead.

That said, there are no hard and fast rules. There are great memoirs about owning pets, or joining self-righteous cults, or eating grubs. Again, it's all in the telling.

On Finding Their Subject

ELIZABETH GILBERT: There's a long tradition in English literature of authors using essays as a means of writing their way through some sort of privately tormenting issue or question. This is one of the great benefits of being a writer — that your vocation can also be your salvation. The most striking example of this, I think, is probably the great Robert Burns tome, The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. This was a giant cinder block-sized lifetime's work, in which Burns tried to sort his way through his depression using research, scholarship, art, science, and, of course, his own writing journey.

My memoir (and many people's memoirs, I believe) was born from the same source — a yearning to write my way out of a dark episode in my life and into a place of comfort and self-comprehension. That said, I didn't want to just sit at my desk and write about my depression and confusion. (Fun read!) Instead, I wanted to turn my memoir into a travelogue of the year I spent crossing the world, trying to find my peace.

As a storyteller, I felt I owed it to my readers not just to sort out my own despair, but to deliver an interesting tale, something worth their time to read. Anything less than that wouldn't have been a proper memoir, but only a sprawling entry from my personal diary of sadness, and I didn't think anyone needed such a thing.

SEAN WILSEY: My subject was growing up (and screwing up). Though I suppose that nobody ever grows up, I only wanted to write about the ways that I more or less had. I only included things in the memoir that I had as-fully-as-possible processed, that were firmly in the past, and that I understood. Of course, I don't know that I understand myself now (and that's why I don't write about myself now), but I understand who I was then, and why I did certain things, and so in the book I talk about things I've pretty well moved through.

TANYA SHAFFER: For me, it was never a question. The year I spent in West Africa was by far the most dramatic and transformational part of my life up to that point. From the moment I returned I was compelled to write about it. It moved me so deeply, I had to get it down, both to share it with others and to clarify it for myself.

FIROOZEH DUMAS: I started writing for my kids, so the first stories I wrote were ones that had some kind of moral. The rest just followed.

RACHEL HOWARD: I knew since about age twenty-one that I wanted to write about my father's murder. I didn't fully understand why I wanted to write about it, because I wasn't really driven to find my father's killer. So I knew what it was about, but I didn't know how it was about that subject, especially because most books about murder are whodunits. So I just wrote the material that felt emotionally urgent for me.

One thing that was difficult, though, was deciding how much to weave in from another thread in my life — my stepfather Howdy. Early on in writing the book I showed a chapter about Howdy to my writers group, and one woman gave me some very bad advice: If it's not directly about the murder, don't include it. So for several drafts of the book, I tried to stuff everything about Howdy into one chapter up front. It wasn't until I'd turned in the full manuscript to Dutton [the publisher] and my editor and I were revising that I realized that the book wasn't about the murder — it was about how I reacted to the murder, how I made some peace with it. And the fact that just after my dad's death I'd had to live with Howdy, a sociopath and a drug addict who screamed at me — it couldn't be separated from the full story. That's when I broke that one overstuffed chapter about Howdy into several chapters, spaced out over the full arc of the book, so that that story line could breathe.

ISHMAEL BEAH: It was fairly straightforward for me since writing my memoir came out of a frustration to give context and understanding to what happened in my country, Sierra Leone, and generally the use of children in war. This required me to write about what was before the war, the culture, the people, communities, and how the war destroyed everything.

FRANK McCOURT: I didn't know until I started. I just started with the first book [Angela's Ashes], and it ended up being about my earliest days coming to America, and a little bit about teaching. And then I finished the second book ['Tis], which continued the story, and then I did the third one [Teacher Man], which was about my teaching career. And that's how it happened. There wasn't any great big plan. I'm not Proust.

NICK HORNBY: I should explain, first of all, that my memoir [Fever Pitch] is told through a series of football match reports of games I saw, mostly live, rather than on TV. But only half or less of the book is about football. The other half is about where I was at when I saw these games. When I went with my dad, I could talk about him. When I went with a girlfriend, I could talk about girls, etc. [Finding the subject] was pretty easy: I wouldn't have written the memoir without knowing that, because it was everything. I realized that because my relationship with my football team had been pretty much the most stable relationship in my life, I could tell my story through my fandom.

LAURA FRASER: I had a fairly dramatic experience — my husband left me, I went to Italy to recuperate, I met a French professor on an island who brought me back to life. When I came home, I wrote about it. Over the next three years, to my surprise, we continued the love affair, which ended up healing my divorce. So it was a story where a lot came together: love, healing, travel.

DAN KENNEDY: Me, I generally aim for the parts that I thought were the end of it. Not in a big, grandiose way, but just those moments that seemed like you were going to be stranded with yourself forever and that prospect caused you great concern.

PHILLIP LOPATE: I write about the aspects of my life that are most poignant, funny, and seemingly universal.

ESMERALDA SANTIAGO: Writing memoir is not a question of what the book is "about," but about what happened as I remember it. I begin writing the first thing I remember and go from there. While I write, I find it easier to keep to a chronological timeline rather than to jump around the years or to seek connections until I finish a complete first draft. It is in the process of editing that I know what the book is "about."

DAVID MATTHEWS: I knew that childhood, specifically the years between ages three and ten, comprised the years that sort of cemented one's personality. I also thought that childhood was the last time many of us saw the world as an adventure, a world much larger and scarier than our lived experiences, and that sense of wonder (terror?) works well in a personal narrative. The one thing common to every reader is that they had a childhood — only the specifics vary.

MATTHUE ROTH: I really thought I was going to write about the time when I was fourteen years old, when I was first becoming religious. I had a whole story outline in my head ... but when I sat down to write, I kept getting stuck, and I kept calling friends instead and gossiping about last weekend at the 24th Street bars. That's when I realized I really was on fire to tell a story about my life, only it wasn't the life I was writing about.

GUS LEE: When our daughter was seven, I wrote about being a seven-year-old kid in the [San Francisco] Panhandle. While I was dealing with issues of integrity and character, I wrote Honor and Duty and, years later, facing the same issues, I wrote Courage. The circumstances of the moment invited memories of a particular past, and I'd hit the keys.

JANICE ERLBAUM: At first, I didn't know what time of my life my book should focus on. I actually wrote a first draft of the book as a series of short stories from various times: age seven, age twenty-four, age eleven, age thirty-one, etc. But that version was rejected by the agents and editors I'd sent it to — they wanted a sequential memoir, a real story, with a beginning, middle, and end. They also noted that the most interesting and dramatic time of my life — the time when my life changed the most — was the time when I was a "halfway homeless" teenager, looking for a stable place to live. This phase started from the minute I walked out of my mother's house at age fifteen, and ended when I got my own apartment at age eighteen. So it seemed clear that there was a nice, natural symmetry there — the book had to start when I left my mother's home, and end when I found a home of my own.

STEPHEN ELLIOTT: I start writing. I'm usually a hundred pages in before I know what a book is about. And then I'm usually wrong.

CAROLINE KRAUS: I came to write Borderlines because two experiences had long preoccupied me. I wasn't hunting for material drawn from my life. Far from it — I was more interested in fiction and screenplays than in myself. In my case, the material hunted me down. And when I started laying down the bones of these two experiences, connections surfaced that intrigued me, that seemed to be relevant on a universal level. And that's when I thought I might have a book.

STEVE ALMOND: For my work, the path to the truth always leads through shame. So I tend to focus on the moments that were particularly awful or embarrassing, and kind of run toward the shame, rather than trying to front. But that's just my thing. The general rule is basically to stick to the material that feels most urgent, that documents and investigates a particular obsession.

PAUL COLLINS: Weirdly enough, I consider myself a private person. If I find an aspect of my life that may increase someone else's appreciation of the world, be it old books or understanding autism, then I'll dive right in. But if it's just about me for the sake of talking about myself? I really dislike that feeling.

BETH LISICK: I set out to write a collection of funny stories from my life. It wasn't until my agent was trying to sell it that it became a "memoir."

JONATHAN AMES: I begin with a notion and then build up and tear down, kind of like a sandcastle that, at some point, becomes permanent.

How You Can Find Your Story

JANICE ERLBAUM: Look for the times when your life changed the most, and when you changed the most. Those are the times of peak drama in your life. How did you survive those transitions? Your answers will help others who read your memoir to survive similar transitions of their own.

ISHMAEL BEAH: You have to think about why you want to write about your life, why is it important to do so not only for you, but for others — the readers? Once you answer these questions, you will find the parts of your life that are relevant to include in your memoir.

PAUL COLLINS: It might not be the part you think, though you may have to write it first to find out. The dilemma always comes down to: there are many reasons to write a memoir, but what are the reasons to read it?

LAURA FRASER: What are the stories you tell your friends? What is something you have overcome and then come to understand in a completely new way? What is a unique experience that you've had that you can universalize to other people?

FRANK McCOURT: You look at the great landscape of your life and you know what was significant and what was boring. It's very personal, what you want to choose. Gore Vidal said a memoir is an impression of your life. It's your impression of your life, and it's yours to do with as you like. It's all extremely subjective.

JAMES McMANUS: Write about the thing you burn hottest about — what you never seem to shut up about at family dinners, intimate conversations, barstool discussions. That's usually a good place to start.

TAMIM ANSARY: You focus on the story-like parts. My premise in memoir is that the quality that we look for in fiction and literature is also there in real life. One is attracted to those events and episodes that seem to have that mysterious quality that reveals something. Looking for the part of your life to write about, it's the heat-seeking missile looking for the story.

JULIA SCHEERES: Memoirs must have themes. They can't just be random pages transcribed from a diary. A specific theme (or themes) helps you organize the material and provides a through-line for the book. A good exercise to discover themes particular to your story is to outline your life in terms of pivotal events and watershed moments. Usually you'll find repeating motifs that you can link and expand on.

DAN KENNEDY: It's always the part you don't want to admit, and the part you don't want to look at. It's the stories that friends want you to tell at dinner, that you wish they'd let you forget, but then as soon as you open your mouth and get honest, you're all laughing so hard you can't eat.

PHILLIP LOPATE: Everyone has a story that churns the guts or that they keep going back to obsessively in their minds. My advice is to write that Big Story, however painful or scary it may be. Also, I would advise aspiring memoirists to write about times when they sinned, not just when they were sinned against, so that the reader can welcome the writer into that universal club of those who add to the world's stock of sorrow.

DAVID RAKOFF: "Aspiring memoirist" is a term that I can't help but find a little bit funny. I sound like an asshole saying this, I know, but memoirs used to be the province of the very old, and in special cases, the very (as opposed to only somewhat) traumatized.

As for advice for the aspiring first-person writer, I'm hopelessly out-of-date here, as usual, what with the kids and their rock and roll and their MySpace and the gradual rendering of such concepts as shame, privacy, and discretion to be as quaint as the Geneva Convention is for the Bush Administration. But I'd urge a little caution before any kind of wholesale, ejaculatory disclosure. I understand very well the wisdom in the adage "write what you know," but it emphatically doesn't mean "write everything you know." But just for oneself as a writer I think what one says is not as important as how one says it. So: parts of your life? It almost doesn't matter, if the writing itself steps up.

GUS LEE: Write about the biggest, scariest darn elephant in the living room of your soul.


Excerpted from The Autobiographer's Handbook by Jennifer Traig. Copyright © 2008 826 National. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

826 Valencia is a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco dedicated to supporting students aged six to eighteen with their writing skills. The first center opened in 2002 and since then, more than 10,000 volunteers have donated their time, with 826 centers springing up in New York, L.A., Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Seattle; 826 Boston will open in the fall of 2007. All proceeds from The Autobiographer's Handbook will benefit the 826 centers.

Jennifer Traig, a longtime 826 tutor and workshop teacher, is the author of two memoirs-Well Enough Alone and Devil in the Details (2004). She holds a Ph.D. in literature, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, JANE, The Observer (London), and the San Francisco Chronicle.

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