Learning from Memoir’s History
As you envision fans around the world reading and discussing your work, a sign that you’ve made it to the top in today’s highly competitive world of publishing, it might be tempting to skip this chapter about the history of the memoir. In focusing on your future, you might wonder why you should read about the past, especially as far back as A.D. 400. It might seem that someone putting a quill to parchment more than 1,600 years ago has nothing to do with selling a memoir that you’re writing now. We beg to differ.
Reading about how memoirs were sold in the past has a great deal to do with the commercial viability of your manuscript today. There’s actually truth to the maxim that you can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been. It’s important to look back at the early history of personal writing because events way back then set the stage for what’s going to be required for your memoir to succeed today. So we want to take you back, all the way back.
Saint Augustine: One of the First Memoirists
During the late fourth and early fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo, a Catholic bishop and theologian from Algeria, raised more than a few eyebrows when he wrote that his early life had been ruled by lust. In a series of books aptly entitled Confessions, he detailed his moral transgressions, including petty theft as a youngster, and later, having sex outside of marriage—lots of it and often, including with a mistress, with whom he had a child.
All of that came to an end, Augustine explained, when, while meditating in a garden, he heard the voice of a child urging him to read. Opening the Bible, Augustine’s heart was opened to God. Today, Augustine—who was later named a saint—is considered one of the most important figures in the ancient Western church, and is credited with practically inventing the genre of autobiography. Initially, the term “memoir” was not widely used in publishing. Autobiographies were the antecedents to memoirs.
Confessions, written long before the invention of the printing press and at a time of widespread illiteracy, was recognized early on as being of such great spiritual and intellectual importance that scribes produced hand-written copies, which is one reason it is still around today to be read and discussed by leading scholars.
With a mea culpa to the saint, we plan to measure Confessions with the same yardstick that you will find throughout Part II, to help explain how and why some memoirs sell. Of course in the fifth century, the word “sell” when referring to books had a different meaning. There were no Amazon.com rankings, bestsellers lists, or Nielsen BookScan reports that detail how many copies of each book are selling in individual markets such as Los Angeles or Rhode Island. Sales activity back in the days of Confessions refers to what transpired to convince people that this was a work they wanted to read and discuss. In other words, we’re interested in what generated the buzz that elevated this Algerian bishop’s book above others.
What made Confessions a hit back then is connected to the same elements significant for selling a book today. We will describe these elements by prefacing the information with a dollar sign ($) to help alert you to what to look for in your own work if you’re hoping editors will acquire your manuscript. Most bestselling memoirs have at least two out of three of the following elements: (1) $trong writing, (2) $trong hook, and (3) $trong platform. Beginning with the first element, let’s examine Saint Augustine’s narrative, using a rubric of 1–10 points per category.
Saint Augustine’s early training was in rhetoric, at the time a major field of study. Trained in communication, he knew how to write and speak persuasively. In Confessions you feel St. Augustine’s moments of sadness, his longings, and sense of loss and joy. Saint Augustine’s work is still read widely and discussed by theologians, clerics, and lay people. Many continue to marvel that his story reflects their own interior lives, and that it was written with a touch of humor. This is the man who famously prayed, “Give me chastity and continence—but not yet.” In other words, the man could write. His score on this count is 10 out of 10.
The best way to understand a narrative hook is to consider how hooks are used as tools in everyday life. We use hooks to keep things in easy reach: an oven mat, keys, or a towel. Similarly, a narrative hook implies accessibility. Picture an acquisitions editor meeting with your literary agent. What would you want your agent to say right off the bat? What would make your story sound accessible in a few words? Hopefully it would be something that intrigues the editor and is considered memorable. It should come to mind easily and telegraph your story’s appeal. Like a news report, a hook should be of interest to a great number of people.
A good narrative hook can be one sentence or a phrase that grabs a reader’s interest, and explains the plot succinctly. Imagine that the hook to Confessions might have been, “From sinner to saint…” Crass, admittedly, but our guess is that even back in ancient societies there were folks like Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi and Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino (we sure hope so). As Stendhal pointed out in Memoirs of an Egotist, published posthumously in 1892, “Great success is not possible without a certain degree of shamelessness.…”
Although good timing isn’t always necessary when trying to hook a reader, it can be helpful. But don’t wait for the right time; make the time right. To understand the importance of timing, imagine using a real hook and trying to grab someone. It would make your job easier if someone was moving past just as you reached out.
Given that by 2012 the newspaper industry was half as big as it had been seven years earlier, you might be tempted to believe that newspapers are history, but au contraire. While an estimated one-third of U.S. newsrooms have disappeared, other companies are continuing to cover their markets—in print and/or online—with fewer reporters while continuing to look for content (written by various writers, and that could mean you). Community newspapers and those with national footprints seem to be holding ground. And there are also more online news organizations, as well as newspaper editions using bloggers to keep the public informed on local stories. So in your effort to build a platform, don’t ignore old media in favor of new. It can be beneficial to incorporate both in your plans. To that end, keep an eye on newspaper Web sites, because that’s precisely what editors at understaffed organizations are doing: trolling the sites of established media, and searching for content and story ideas. Getting stories, essays, letters, reviews, or your blog into a newspaper can help you build an audience, especially if the publication will include your online contact information at the end of the piece.
Author Susan Gregory Thomas used newspapers to great effect in the marketing of her memoir In Spite of Everything (Random House: 2011). Three weeks before the book’s publication, she was one of several people interviewed in a New York Times feature, “How Divorce Lost Its Cachet.” The story and Gregory Thomas’s book examined trends that suggest a reluctance to divorce among college-educated Generation Xers, in response to growing up in the shadow of the high rate of marital failures of their baby boomer parents. The feature story also ran on the paper’s popular Web site, which has more than 34.5 million unique monthly visitors. Three days before the release of Thomas’s memoir, one of her essays, “The Divorce Generation,” ran in the paper with the largest U.S. weekly circulation, The Wall Street Journal. A week later, her book ranked an impressive 1,345 at Amazon. This ranking does not reflect sales on the site or in other retail outlets, but indicates the frequency by which a title is searched on Amazon.
Susan Gregory Thomas has written for a number of publications and surely has contacts in the media. Following are some suggestions for those hoping to replicate her success:
Read local and national newspapers, print and/or online to keep up with stories, that might intersect with your work, providing the opening you need for writing a feature, or to interest an editor in developing a story around your topic.
Identify which staffers cover topics that intersect with your interests. As you develop an expertise, write to these journalists and their editors, submitting stories or essays on your chosen subject, including interviews with experts.
The idea is to interest a journalist in a topic that might be the subject of an essay or feature, written by a staffer or perhaps by you (this might lead eventually to a review of your book, once it is published).
Contacting a journalist is more effective with traditional mail. Journalists receive little snail mail. Busy with deadlines, they are unlikely to open mail with computer-generated labels and metered postage. Send a typed letter, no longer than two-thirds of a page, in a hand-addressed envelope with a postage stamp.
Identify bloggers who cover your topic and offer to guest blog.
Attempting to get into The New York Times is always worth a try, especially when the Sunday print edition has 1.35 million readers, and when so many publishing professionals relax over this paper.
Pay particular attention to feature pages and Op-Ed sections of several major newspapers. You can find a listing by Googling “U.S. newspaper circulation.”
Market your book by weighing in on subjects you’re knowledgeable about in the Letters to the Editor sections, or Op-Ed pages. A number of Web sites offer advice for crafting these pieces. If your Op-Ed piece touches upon issues in the news, that is a hook with a competitive edge.
Magazine features also have clout in the publishing industry. If you have honed your skills as a writer and have newspaper features to submit along with a feature story idea, submit your pieces to magazines. In April 2012 in Vogue, Dara-Lynn Weiss wrote of her efforts to get her seven-year-old daughter to slim down and created a firestorm, with some accusing her of fat-shaming her child. She also attracted a publisher’s eye, and signed with Random House. Elif Batuman’s highly lauded The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Granta: 2011) began as articles by the author that ran in Harper’s and The New Yorker.
If you are new to feature writing, don’t rule out local city newspapers, as well as smaller regional papers in your pursuit of credentials. Free local publications can help you establish credibility. If an editor has run even one of your stories, the media is more likely to take you seriously. So start small, if necessary, and then move up. Later, when you query agents, include clips or links to some of your online features.
Finally, consider attending a conference to meet journalists with your interests. For instance, if you’re writing a religious memoir, visit the Religion Writers Web site: religionwriters.com.
Saint Augustine had timing in his favor. Confessions had no other real competition. In addition to it being among the first autobiographical works, it was all the more unique because it was written in the form of prayers. In offering the world an interior view of his life, Saint Augustine’s candor strengthened his narrative hook. Consider today’s clerics and the public faces they present to the world. Unless mired in scandal, they don’t often talk about struggles in their lives. Imagine how shocking it must have been for a fifth-century bishop to discuss his lusty memories. If Barnes & Noble had been operating, readers would have lined up through the streets waiting to buy copies. Saint Augustine scores another 10-pointer, this time in the narrative hook category.
As discussed, a strong platform describes the ways in which a writer is visible or connected to a community of potential or actual readers. Back in his day, Saint Augustine raised his voice above others in his community, while remaining part of it. As a Christian bishop and a great communicator he had one of the highest platforms of his time—a pulpit. In that particular era of the Holy Roman Empire, church controversies stirred great passion, as they do today. What’s more, Saint Augustine was said to have preached in the language of the common folks. Can Saint Augustine get a 10-pointer on his platform? Yes, he can, bringing him to a full 30 points overall. That heavenly score adds up to the makings of a bestseller. Compelling writing, strong hook, and prominent platform. Saint Augustine would have been a literary agent’s dream.
We won’t use the same yardstick to evaluate the bestselling writing potential of Benjamin Franklin, the founding father credited with writing the first autobiographical book in the United States. This has little to do with the fact that he took nineteen years to write The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and that he died before completing it, which would give any agent nightmares. No, Franklin gets little room on these pages because he was already an international celebrity by the time he started writing his autobiography. Since he emerged from the box with a built-in platform, he was decidedly not an RU.
Escaped slave Frederick Douglass was not an RU for long. After a cadre of abolitionists spread word about his book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845, he embarked on a speaking tour, and his book became highly controversial. After being asked to address a crowd of abolitionists, he stepped on a stage, found his voice, and learned the power of personal history. Unflinchingly honest, his work was viewed as so moving that racist critics fought back with the claim that it could not have been written by a black man. Douglass’s Narrative sold 5,000 copies in four months; by 1847, 11,000 copies had been sold—a major achievement at a time of widespread illiteracy. The book continues to inspire and sell.
Two Noted Memoirists, Two Different Levels of Recognition
The success of the RUs is a fairly recent trend. Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s Cheaper by the Dozen (HarperCollins: 1948), the story of two efficiency experts raising a brood of twelve children in Montclair, New Jersey, did become a bestseller that was adapted into a film. However, from the 1950s to 1980s stars of television and the big screen wrote most of the autobiographical bestsellers, with occasional contributions from those in the corporate and political world. One notable exception was the publication of Below Stairs (Peter Davies: 1968), by Margaret Powell, whose memoir of post–World War I domestic service in England inspired the popular TV series Upstairs Downstairs, and Downton Abbey. The book has since been republished with a new subtitle as Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey (St. Martin’s: 2012).
The late sixties marked the publication of the memoir Stop-Time, by Frank Conroy. This haunting, beautifully written coming-of-age tale details the author’s journey from boyhood to adolescence. If you’re scratching your head, wondering why you’ve never heard of this fine author, you are helping to make the point. Stop-Time earned kudos within the literary world, and it was nominated for a National Book Award. At the time Conroy was already a familiar name in literary circles.
So why didn’t his memoir catch fire in the larger world? It’s our guess that this has to do with the weakness, at the time, of the author’s narrative hook and platform. You can figure out if a book has a weak hook if even an admiring reader finds it difficult to explain in a few sentences why “others” would find it interesting. It’s difficult to describe what makes Stop-Time unique; its hook remains elusive.
Please don’t mistake these words as criticism of Conroy. It is an honor for an author to be respected by critics and fellow writers, but that kind of praise doesn’t necessarily send readers rushing to buy books. One of the tasks of You Should Really Write a Book is to offer information on how to sell and market memoirs, which requires us to speak candidly. Conroy most likely sold Stop-Time because of the prestige associated with his name. Unsurprisingly, his editor was probably an admirer of his work and of the man, so the book may have been published even if it appeared unlikely that the company would profit from it. (The book has surely yielded profits. Stop-Time continues to sell and is often included on recommended reading lists.) These kinds of admiration deals occur infrequently in today’s bottom line–driven market.
By the time Conroy’s novel Body & Soul (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 1993) was published, he had served as the director of the literature program at the National Endowment of the Arts and had begun directing the influential Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, both of which heightened his platform. His novel was a bestseller and brought him the recognition he deserved. Conroy died in 2005, at the age of sixty-nine.
In contrast, only two years following the publication of Conroy’s memoir, Maya Angelou emerged onto the literary landscape with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Random House: 1969), the first of six of her autobiographical works. As with Conroy’s coming-of-age tale, reviews for Caged Bird were nothing short of wonderful, but Angelou also enjoyed relatively early commercial success. For two years Caged Bird remained a New York Times bestseller, and it continues to have a life of its own as new generations embrace its theme about the healing power of literature. The book is studied in high school and college classrooms, and the story was made into a TV movie.
Maya Angelou—who has since been awarded honorary doctoral degrees, and is often referred to as Dr. Angelou—remains a literary celebrity. Lauded on the Oprah Winfrey Show, she has appeared in films, and she read one of her poems, “On the Pulse of Morning,” at President Bill Clinton’s 1993 inauguration.
It is difficult to imagine that Angelou might have once been considered Relatively Unknown, but that is the truth of it. Her story makes a good case that the best-known memoirists bring more than excellent writing to the table. In addition to powerful writing, Caged Bird’s hook can be described in a few words: a girl who is raped and struck mute speaks again after being introduced to great works of literature. The book’s time frame couldn’t have been better selected. Angelou came of age in the 1960s, a time when the reading world seemed to be holding its breath waiting to hear from excellent black authors.
The mainstream reading public had already signaled an interest in the “Black experience,” making bestsellers out of autobiographical and semiautobiographical works describing life at the intersection of poverty and racism. These titles include James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (Knopf: 1953); Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Grove Press: 1965); and Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (Macmillan: 1965). Another author, Piri Thomas, debuted in the same year as Angelou. The son of a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father, Thomas described a world of violent crime and poverty in Spanish Harlem in Down These Mean Streets (Knopf: 1967). While these five authors have since died, millions of copies of their books have been sold and remain staples on recommended reading lists.
What many of those authors, including Angelou, did not have back then was a strong platform. As you will see in Part II, RUs with two out of three (and only occasionally even one) of the essential elements can sometimes attract publishers. If an editor views a manuscript as well written, with a strong narrative hook, she might help an appealing author build a platform.
In that respect, the decision to publish Caged Bird would seem to rank in the no-brainer hall of fame. Angelou’s stage presence was probably apparent from early on. A former dancer accustomed to appearing in public, she has a magisterial presence, and in a voice of the finest timbre, speaks in expressively precise diction. Random House editor Robert Loomis reportedly heard from a colleague about her speaking and storytelling gifts. He must have recognized upon meeting her that she would stand at a microphone and breathe life into her story.
Angelou was among a small cadre of RU autobiographical successes in the early 1970s, along with another woman who had come of age in a different world.
The seventies was the era when sex came out of the dark and from under the sheets. First Lady Betty Ford unsettled many when she told an interviewer that she had sex with her husband “as often as possible.” It was also a time when readers, unhinged from the old verities, looked for advice from bestsellers that included The Sensuous Man, The Joy of Sex, and Your Erroneous Zones*. It wasn’t unusual for readers to cover those books with brown-paper wrappers or tuck them away in their bedrooms.
It was a different world from today, when eyebrows are hardly raised over the launch of Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss’s reality TV show “Prostitutes to Parrots.” Imagine the response, though, in the early seventies, when former call girl and madam Xaviera Hollander burst onto the scene with The Happy Hooker: My Own Story (Harper: 1971). Putting a face on the sexual revolution, this memoir soared to the top, eventually selling twenty million copies.
Although written with coauthors, the quality of the Happy Hooker’s prose wasn’t Shakespearean, but who cared? Self-assured and conventionally good-looking, Hollander had the strongest possible narrative hook. Rather than skulking about in shame, as might have been expected, she seemed proud. In fact, the secret of her publishing success was signaled in the title—she claimed to be a Happy Hooker. The book was made into a film.
Forty years later, Hollander still understands the importance of a strong platform. For decades she wrote “Call Me Madam,” an advice column for Penthouse. She has also penned other books, as well as plays, and her Web site promotes a “Happy House” bed-and-breakfast inn in Amsterdam, as well as workshops on how to become a better lover.
A MARKETPLACE SURVIVAL TIP
Titles are important for selling memoirs, helping you to build a brand, a distinctive name that identifies your interests. Like effective commercials, titles grab attention and are memorable. The Happy Hooker works because readers wonder what a woman in this profession is happy about. Great titles make people stop and think. James McBride’s bestselling The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (Riverhead: 1996) poses contradictions between the title and subtitle. Water is colorless, but the first thing some people notice about a white mother and her black son is their color.
There are also successful memoirs with forgettable titles. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster: 1991), the story of three generations of the author’s family, might have been a forgettable title had it not sold more than ten million copies. Success helped make the Wild Swans title memorable for millions of fans.
If you haven’t thought of a showstopper title, don’t be discouraged. Use a temporary working title that encapsulates your plot, such as Farm Family: A Memoir, followed by the words “working title” in smaller font. Folks in the publishing industry understand that this means that your intellectual property is under development.
With some subgenres, such as addiction and transformation memoirs, consider including some reference to the subject or theme. For example, Elizabeth Weil’s main title, No Cheating, No Dying, offered little clue to her subject, but the subtitle explained her point, I Had a Good Marriage. Then I Tried to Make It Better (Scribner: 2012). Both the main and subtitle can be informative, as with Claire Dederer’s Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010). The merits of this tactic are also clear. People search out books looking for inspiration, help, and information around a particular subject, and your title may help them find your work.
As for coming up with a strong title, try, try, and try again, but if at first or second or third try you don’t succeed, give it a break. An editor or agent may also enjoy coming up with a title for you. It’s probably wise to resist becoming attached to a title, since it might be changed, even more than once, through the publication process. With the 2006 hardcover publication for Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, the subtitle was One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations … One School at a Time. An estimated twenty thousand copies of the Viking Penguin book sold subsequently. With the 2007 release of the paperback it was republished with the more positive subtitle One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time. The improved subtitle, price, and marketing helped this paperback remain a bestseller for four years.
Finally, since editors often devise winning titles by brainstorming, you can do the same, polling relatives and friends. Or load manuscript excerpts onto an MP-3 player or cell phone. Listening to your own words will help you tap into a new level of creativity.
A Memoirist Entitles His Book for “Mom”
In 1996, a retired Manhattan schoolteacher who had been working for decades on a memoir about growing up in Ireland electrified the publishing world with a book he named for his mother as he considered her grief-filled life. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes is breathtakingly lyrical, and by turns tragic and laugh-out-loud funny. The book won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize, sold more than four million copies, and inspired a 1999 film.
Angela’s Ashes covers two decades in McCourt’s life, as he grew up in the home of a good-natured but harmfully neglectful drunken father. The funereal tone of the title fit the narrative. Angela gave birth to seven children but lost three, including a young daughter and a set of twins, to what were probably preventable causes. Angela’s Ashes is an ode to the memory of a mother who never emerged from the grief over the loss of her children and her own wasted life. That her son, Frank McCourt, made something of his own life, which is clear from the power of his prose, offers hope to those who have feared they will never recover from childhood neglect caused by a parent’s alcoholism.
It’s important to note that beyond the strength of his writing and his story’s narrative hook, McCourt was a showman in his own right. For decades, he worked as a high school writing teacher, a job that is difficult to survive spiritually unless one learns to engage an audience with humor and knowledge. He was also raised in a family of raconteurs. At one point, McCourt and his brother Malachy performed in a series of autobiographical sketches. Fueled by Frank McCourt’s success, Malachy and another brother, Alphie, wrote memoirs of their own.*
In a 2009 interview, a friend, Mary Breasted, suggested that McCourt’s raconteur skills propelled his impressive sales. “He had this amazing storyteller’s talent. He could speak for an hour without notes.” McCourt wrote two sequels to Angela’s Ashes. By his 2009 death, ten million copies of his books were in print.
The “Age of Oprah” Helps to Ignite a Memoir Market
Oprah Winfrey’s network talk show may have ended in 2011, but not before it drove shifts in behaviors. In the years leading up to Winfrey’s show, TV journalist Barbara Walters primed the pump by prying tears and confessionals from the rich and famous. Winfrey hit it big, in part because she included in her lineup the guy and girl next door. She also distinguished herself from competitors by sharing on air her personal history of childhood sexual abuse. Through the years, as Winfrey reached ever-larger audiences, her show and others helped normalize and popularize therapy and self-help books. This was also a time when President Bill Clinton was portrayed as interested in the “pain” of others. Still, it was Oprah Winfrey in particular who instigated a cultural shift, whetting appetites for the personal stories of ordinary people.
TAKE THIS PERSONALLY
Writing a memoir often puts authors in touch with unexpressed emotions. Like new patients working with therapists, inexperienced memoirists often feel the need to tell everything, a phenomenon known as “flooding.” When this occurs in therapy, a clinician is trained to encourage the client to dwell on individual experiences, so they can be processed. For the sake of writing a commercially viable manuscript, if you refrain from leaping from one memory to another, you will be less likely to skim over what might be your story’s high points. Too many subplots make a story seem unwieldy.
Marion Roach Smith, a writing teacher, encourages literary restraint. The author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (Grand Central: 2011), Smith advised in a National Public Radio interview that rather than cramming memories into a story, focus on relating the narrative to broader themes. She uses as an example a decision she made while writing the memoir Another Name for Madness (Houghton Mifflin: 1985), which depicts her mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. Although she wrote about her mother’s alcoholism, she omitted references to her mother’s infidelity, convinced they would move the story in the wrong direction. Instead she focused on the devastation of Alzheimer’s.
Delving into hurtful experiences should also be undertaken with consideration about personal consequences. In 1920, author Virginia Woolf, during a gathering of writers, read aloud from an essay about having been molested. Her inclination to discuss this troubling experience is understandable, but talking about trauma without adequate support can lead to anxiety and depression. Woolf may have felt shame when men in the group appeared bored and uncomfortable. She wrote in a diary that her confession left her feeling “most unpleasantly discomfited … What possessed me to lay bare my soul?” Personal writing may be therapeutic, but it’s not a substitute for therapy. Like Woolf, you may find it helpful to keep a journal or work with a clinician to process your reactions.
During the 1990s, as people became convinced that intimacy among strangers could be therapeutic, thanks in part to a changed landscape in daytime talk TV, interest in autobiographical works energized the publishing industry. Among personal stories, memoirs became the books of choice, allowing RU authors to offer personal views of specific periods of their lives, as opposed to more expansive autobiographies.
Surely there will always be memoirists that rise to prominence who might be described as poor writers, or whose stories contain no easily discernible plot and who have not built platforms, but their numbers are dwindling. As demonstrated on these pages, memoirists have long combined strength of writing, charisma, and marketing skills to fuel book sales. What has changed is the greater reliance by publishers on the writer’s successful use of social networking.
It seems fitting, then, that a memoir of multiple themes, including a boy’s grief over his absent father, would be the first of its kind to help launch a national political career. Young law school graduate Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (Times Books: 1995) earned modest sales before it was republished in 2004, and became a megabestseller.
By then, Obama had claimed a platform of his own. Two weeks earlier he had delivered a powerful keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. Four years later, his campaign managers had mastered the art of networking. This, along with a multiplicity of factors, helped him become the forty-fourth president of the United States.
HONING YOUR CRAFT
In reading memoirs, look for the authors’ approaches to issues that you might be grappling with in your writing. Suggested titles of various subgenres follow.
1. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, by Jeanette Winterson (Grove: 2012)
2. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, by Cheryl Strayed (Knopf: 2012)
3. Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir, by Doron Weber (Simon & Schuster: 2012)
4. Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, by Gabrielle Hamilton (Random House: 2011)
5. The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son, by Ian Brown (St. Martin’s: 2011)
6. Maman’s Homesick Pie: A Persian Heart in an American Kitchen, by Donia Bijan (Algonquin: 2011)
7. Ghosts by Daylight: Love, War, and Redemption, by Janine di Giovanni (Knopf/Doubleday: 2011)
8. House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer’s Journey Home, by Mark Richard (Nan A. Talese: 2011)
9. The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, by Elif Batuman (Granta: 2011)
10. Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, by Leymah Gbowee (Beast: 2011)
11. I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, by Kelle Groom (Free Press: 2011)
12. The Memory Palace, by Mira Bartok (Free Press: 2011)
13. Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, by Joshua Foer (Penguin: 2011)
14. SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper, by Howard E. Wasdin and Stephen Templin (St. Martin’s: 2011)
15. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, by Edmund de Waal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2010)
16. What’s Left of Us, by Richard Farrell (Citadel: 2009)
17. Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction, by David Sheff (Houghton Mifflin: 2008)
18. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2007)
19. Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, by Sara Miles (Ballantine: 2007)
20. Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: My Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World, by Lucette Lagnado (Ecco: 2007)
21. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2006)
22. The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer (Hyperion: 2005)
23. Daughter of Heaven: A Memoir with Earthly Recipes, by Leslie Li (Arcade: 2005)
24. Four Corners: A Journey to the Heart of Papua New Guinea, by Kira Salak (National Geographic: 2004)
25. Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, by Carlos Eire (Free Press: 2003)
26. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon: 2003)
27. Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses, by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow: 2001)
28. The Pianist: The Extraordinary True Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, by Wladsylaw Szpilman (Picador: 1999)
29. Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, by Ruth Reichl (Random House: 1998)
30. Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy, by Dani Shapiro (Random House: 1998)
31. An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin: 1996)
32. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, by James McBride (Riverhead: 1996)
33. Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt (Scribner: 1996)
34. Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy, by Frances Mayes (Chronicle: 1996)
35. The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr (Viking: 1995)
36. When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago (Da Capo: 1993)
37. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, by Abraham Verghese (Simon & Schuster: 1994)
38. This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff (Atlantic Monthly Press: 1989)
39. The Road from Coorain, by Jill Ker Conway (Knopf: 1989)
40. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou (Random House: 1969)
Copyright © 2012 by Regina Brooks and Brenda Lane Richardson