Memoir is a misunderstood genre, and I am as guilty as anyone for underestimating it. In today’s interview, Marion Roach Smith explains the power of memoir and how we can all use it to become better writers.
In the update, it’s fantastic to announce that the podcast now has a sponsor in Kobo Writing Life, a fantastic platform for indie authors. I’ve been publishing on Kobo for the last year and it’s definitely been brilliant to see sales grow in Canada and in many other countries.
I also announce the launch of my new novella, One Day In Budapest and mention my research video which you can view here. I was also on BBC World on a segment about digital publishing and ebooks – an exciting week!
Marion is the author of 4 books, and she has written for the NY Times, Vogue and other publications. She’s been teaching memoir writing for 13 years and her latest book is ‘The Memoir Project – a thoroughly non-standardized text for writing and life‘
- Marion started by her career writing for the New York Times about the death of her mother from Alzheimers, which was rare back then. Since then, she’s written more books – about forensic science and the history of red hair – as well as lots of pieces for mainstream media like Vogue, plus blogging.
- On the definition of memoir. Understand your territory and what it covers, as defined by your areas of expertise, one area at a time. You’re not writing about “your life” – it’s more about a specific insight into a specific aspect of your expertise. For example, Drinking: A Love Story. One area of life in great detail. Memoir is not biography, as most of us are not famous enough to justify it. Comparing memoir to narrative non-fiction and the vagaries of genre bending.
- Everyone has lots of stories, and writing from a need for therapy is legitimate as is a need for self-understanding. Asking provocative questions will help in order to delve down into the reasons behind. A piece of memoir that gives an insight into something else. Decide on your intent and focus on that, rather than just laying it all out there.
- On the importance of editing and what to leave out. You have an argument or a position to illustrate with your book, so you should only leave in the stories that illustrate this. You shouldn’t be centre-stage. There should be some deeper consideration of your theme and argument. Every page must drive the story forward.
Just because it happened, doesn’t make it interesting.
- What is truth? Memoir is ‘your’ truth, but there will always be another version of the truth. Don’t mess with the intent of the exchange, even if you can’t remember the actual words. If your ultimate piece is laden with cliche, ‘it was the saddest day of my life,’ that’s not truth. You need to go deeper.
- On family. You can’t libel the dead, but the upset of family emotional impact is a common issue with memoir. Write first and let’s see what you have before you start worrying. Don’t write for revenge. Privacy can be a real issue so make sure you have a good reader, who is NOT anyone close to you, especially if they are in it.
- Using memoir within our fiction and non-fiction. Bits of our lives come into many different forms of writing e.g. my book Career Change contains anecdotes about my own working life. That is memoir – pieces of personal narrative that illustrate a theme/argument.
The commercial prospects for memoir
- Remember – just because it happened, doesn’t make it interesting. That’s the biggest mistake. Find the theme that resonates with other people. For example, a day by day, blow by blow account of your life with your dog vs. how animals can change your life, as illustrated by stories about you and your dog. You need to differentiate between what happened to you and what the book is truly about. Marketing is also critical, but it’s more about finding your niche around your message, the community who care.
- On finding an editor to help you step outside your story. Decide what kind of editor you want, and there are people who can help. Deciding on what stories to leave in, self-editing, is critical before you go to someone else. Write your argument/theme on a piece of paper on the wall/ planner and then write down the stories as they come to you, as they relate to that theme.
- Writing is one of the most efficient and productive ways to improve your own life.
You can find The Memoir Project on Amazon and other online bookstores.
Transcript of Interview with Marion Roach Smith
Joanna: Hi, everyone. I’m Joanna Penn from thecreativepenn.com. And today, I’m here with Marion Roach Smith. Hi, Marion.
Marion: Hi, Joanna. It’s great to be here.
Joanna: Yeah, lovely to have you on the show.
Marion is the author of four books and she’s written for “The New York Times,” and “Vogue,” and lots of other things. She’s been teaching memoir for the last 13 years, and her latest book is “The Memoir Project,” a thoroughly non-standardized text for writing and life. And so obviously, today, we’re talking about memoir.
Marion, why don’t you just start off by telling us a little bit more about you and you’re writing background.
Marion: I started working at “The New York Times” right out of college. And during those early years, from the years 21 to about 27, my mother developed an illness from which there was no cure and no treatment, and no one at “The New York Times” have heard of it. And they challenged me to write the first first-person account in “The New York Times Magazine,” which went on to become the biggest, most republished piece in the history of the magazine.
The disease was Alzheimer’s disease, which is astonishing now because, of course, everyone’s heard of it, but at that time, no one had. And the book caused quite a sensation that followed the magazine piece. The magazine piece caused quite a sensation and the book caused quite a sensation, and that was my first book and that was called “Another Name for Madness.”
After that, I realized that I really liked writing long-form so I quit “The New York Times,” and subsequently have written for, as you’ve said so kindly, most of the major publications around and have also done a lot of public radio work and have subsequently written three other books.
One of them was two years behind the scenes in the world of forensic science. The next one was the history of red hair, which has got a lot of memoir in it because, there you go, and is sort of a science, art, culture, genetics, great big romp in the history of kind of how we judge each other based on how we look. So as we can’t talk about skin color very successfully, I thought I’d talk about hair color. And then this crazy book, this little reference book on how to write a memoir. And in between, lots and lots of magazine pieces, personal essays, and a lot of blogging. So it’s fun.
Joanna: Wow. And now, I want to ask you all about forensic science and about Alzheimer’s. That will be another show. And I should tell you also, my brother’s got red hair. We obviously have a lot in common.
Marion: Yeah, you’ve got the skin color so it’s a very interesting genetic mutation and it lives in your part of the world much more so than in mine.
Joanna: Indeed, right. So let’s talk about memoir, though.
Can you start by defining memoir, and whether it is just telling the truth?
Marion: Right. That’s a great question and one that really helps make people understand what memoir is. I define memoir and understanding memoir as your territory. In other words, we all have territory. And walking its borders, what you discover is it’s a lot smaller than you think.
If you want to be a successful memoir writer, what you do is you define your territory by your areas of expertise one area at a time. Most people think that memoir is that big book that starts with your great, great grandparents and ends with what you had for breakfast today. And those are the books that don’t sell and nobody really reads.
But if you want to be successful at memoir, you think in terms of size, blog post, personal essay, long-form memoir, all the way up to book size. And you think about your areas of expertise. I’m a woman. I’m a wife. I’m a college trustee. I’m a mother. I own a home. I own a dog. I sail boats. I write memoir. I write from all of those different areas of expertise one at a time. Memoir is about your territory. And if you make your territory small, you will be a good memoirist.
Of course, it’s about the truth, but it’s about your truth. Too much truth too big is exactly where most memoirists fail because they think that they want to write about their life when, really, I would like them to give me a little insight into how they’ve recovered from their alcoholism. I’d like them to give me a little insight into how they developed a sense of humor about being married. I like them to give me some insight about how they raise their dogs. This is a brilliant difference.
The great Caroline Knapp, who I always quote on this topic, knew it. When she wrote her first bestselling memoir, she wrote the book that has the best title of any book ever. It’s called “Drinking: A Love Story,” and that’s what she wrote about. When she wrote her next memoir, it was called “A Pack of Two,” about her relationship with her dogs. Had she not died tragically young, she probably would have written seven or eight memoirs, each from one area of expertise at a time. That’s the difference. And if you get that, you can succeed.
Joanna: Well, that’s actually fascinating. And a genre, I guess, that we hear talked about is narrative nonfiction, which is, again, kind of one of these wishy-washy phrases.
How would you define narrative nonfiction? And is that the same as memoir? Or what does that mean?
Marion: It’s great. You know, whole academic conferences are devoted to howling over these semantic differences so I leave it pretty clear. Autobiography is best left for the people who we know one great big thing about; Elvis Presley. In America, Sonia Sotomayor, one of our Supreme Court justices, recently wrote a memoir. Of course, I want to read her memoir because I know that she’s an Hispanic woman who made it to United States Supreme Court. What I don’t know are the small and large conflicts she confronted to get there. That’s why I want to read her memoir.
For the rest of us who are not known for one big thing, being a rock star, being a Supreme Court justice, being name-your-thing, we need to write from one area of expertise at a time.
When we get into these phrases like narrative nonfiction, it’s smudging the differences and it confuses everybody. So I say memoir of which there are many different lengths and autobiography for those people whose big stuff we know. It keeps pretty clear, and I try not to talk in Masters in Fine Arts terminology. When people start talking to me about post-modernists narrative nonfiction, I say, “Oh, you know, I got that meeting and I gotta go.”
Joanna: And you know what? What you just said has probably changed my personal opinion on whether I would be ever interested in writing it. That’s really helped me. And it’s funny because, of course, we all read a lot of books but these definitions change your perspective and make us judgmental.
Marion: Oh, yeah. And exclude us, and I don’t think that the academics intend to exclude us. It’s just the language is very excluding. When people talk about polemic and they talk about the…well, there’s a language of academics that I think makes a lot of people shudder with the idea and think that their stories have no value.
I genuinely believe that everyone’s story has value and that everyone has lots and lots of stories, and they’re trying to tell one big story is where we get confused in that effort. So, yeah, I believe in lots and lots of stories and lots of different ways to do it. But narrative nonfiction is not a phrase you’ll ever hear me use.
Joanna: Oh, good. Okay, so you mentioned lots of stories there, and of course, writing such stories can sometimes be very personal and heartbreaking.
Did writing memoir partially start out of a need for therapy?
Marion: I think writing memoir can start out as several different needs. And need for therapy is just as legitimate as a need for self-understanding, which isn’t as…I think you’re making a distinction between one and the other. What I do know is that just like in life, writing memoir and its success and happiness depends on which aspects of your life you choose to emphasize. So, of course, it’s going to be therapeutic if you do some understanding work. And this is the difference between memoir that works and memoir that doesn’t work.
I don’t expect you to have it all figured out when you write memoir, but it would be great if you either ask provocative questions or explore territory for me that I’m either unsure of or have never been in. You just have to know a little bit about why gardening makes you feel better to write a beautiful essay about how gardening makes you feel better, a piece of memoir that gives me some insight into something else.
And so I think memoir is therapeutic but its intent is not always therapeutic. Sometimes, people simply wanna record what happened. But I always say to them, “Along the way, ask yourself some hard questions. Heighten and add to your intent and the memoir will be better. Because if you just read me your date book, I’m not gonna be interested. But if you actually bring some understanding, some inquiry to this small stuff of life, I’m gonna be very, very, very happy to read your stuff.”
Joanna: I think my question stemmed from the fact that I’ve other people send me manuscripts for some reason and I don’t read manuscripts. But a lot of have people do send memoir or biography, however you wanna call it, but a lot of it seems to be unedited in terms of what you’re saying is what’s important to leave out.
When people are looking at their own manuscripts, how do they know what to leave out?
Marion: That’s my favorite question because it’s all about unpacking. And you’re not going on a cruise on the QE2 for 15 years. You’re not going on a trip forever. You’re going on a small walk with a reader. And during that small walk, you’re having a little argument. You’re having a little discussion. Because all nonfiction is an argument even if your argument is as simple as life is better with a good cat to love.
And people, you know, they say to me, “Oh, come on, that’s not a whole book.” And I say…you know what’s this book published in America called “Marley and Me” that is sold 127 million copies, must be published in 48 languages or whatever. Its argument is dogs do something for humans that humans can’t do for themselves. Maybe that’s the argument. All nonfiction is an argument.
Your argument may be life is better if you garden. Your argument may be life is better if you have a good a cat to love. Anything that does not push your argument forward gets tossed out of the book. All books, all essays, all blog posts, or any length memoir, if you considered it as an argument, if you’re saying something, “I’m saying that plants can make a person happy,” the illustration of that is that plants make me happy. See how that shoves you off and center stage a little bit and makes the piece just a tiny bit garden?
My argument is that plants will make people happy. My illustration is that they make me happy. That’s not a self-serving a piece as plants make me happy. Why would I read that piece? But if in there, there’s a little intelligence, a little consideration, a little bit of deeper sentences, that I love my plants, my plants make me happy, we have a piece that has some future if we consider things a little bit.
So anything that doesn’t move that argument forward gets it tossed out, anything that doesn’t drive that one story forward. The other things that get tossed out are things that are in there just because they happened.
I have three rules of writing.
One is that writing memoir is about telling the truth.
The other one is that every page must drive one story forward.
And the third, which is the most condemning of all, is because just how that happened doesn’t make it interesting. And just because something happened doesn’t make it interesting is a hard thing to swallow. But the fact is if it doesn’t drive your argument forward for that piece, it has no business being there.
Joanna: That’s great. And I just want to come back on truth again because you mentioned it there. But when you think back, you know, if I was writing something about my childhood, what we call our truth may actually be very tainted with memory. We won’t remember conversations word by word.
Joanna: A lot of people are worried about the distinction between what is our truth versus somebody else’s memory of it? What’s your opinion on that?
Marion: It’s a really big issue and one that stops people all the time. That and what will my family think are the two big killers, and we’ll get to the what your family thinks. But let’s talk about the truth for a minute.
Memoir is your truth and so you have to be able to accept the fact that there’s gonna be someone else’s version. In fact, this family thing is twined right with this concept of truth all the time.
I ask people always to think of story as one big pizza. If you’ve got a family, everybody gets a different slice. It’s only when you bring all the slices back to the pie do you have the whole truth.
But what is truth? I would actually be willing to mention that the truth has never really set any single person free because the truth is not a standardized object that exists out there for discovery.
Your truth is laden with your memory. If you don’t remember something when you’re writing dialogue…for instance, no eight-year-old was taking notes in her life. So what I always say to my students is, “What was the intent of the exchange? Don’t mess with the intent of the exchange.”
If you’re writing about the day your mother explained sex to you, you remember how frightened you were, how freaked out, or how completely embarrassed, or how totally cool this was, or whatever it was. Don’t mess with the intent of the exchange to make yourself sound smarter or wittier. What’s wonderful about nonfiction is it’s not fiction where the dialogue is riveting. Most of us are clumsy and awkward, and that’s what you wanna write about is the clumsiness and awkwardness of the exchange.
The actual words that passed back and forth are less important, and that’s where we get tripped up. It’s the human interaction. It’s the currency that we exchange in these experiences. That’s the story. So of course, you can’t remember everything but you go for your personal truth.
And when you do that, one of the things you must be careful of is cliché because once the piece is laden with cliché…which by the way, I use in my first and second draft as placeholders. But if the ultimate piece is laden with cliché, what we say is she doesn’t know what she felt. She doesn’t know what it was actually like to stand by the bed of her dying husband and say goodbye to him. She says things like, “It was the saddest day of my life,” or, “It’s the hardest thing I ever did,” or she uses some big whopper cliché. And we say she doesn’t know the truth of what happened.
So the truth is a fascinating subject to memoir, but it’s not about having taken notes when you were eight. It’s about the intent of the exchanges between people and what you can bring to the honesty of those exchanges. See the difference?
Joanna: Yeah, and I definitely…that’s brilliant. And then, you know, let’s come back on family.
Marion: Family, my favorite topic. Who can write if it wasn’t for family?
Joanna: Yeah, and let’s tackle it in the kind of emotional impact and then also perhaps the privacy and the legal potential minefield of it, you know.
Marion: Well, here’s the good news about the legal. You can’t libel the dead. So if they’re dead, you can say anything you want. Now, yeah, that just happens to be true, and it’s a good thing. But the upset of family is always the thing that I hear from people. I mean, honestly, I get 20 emails a day on this particular topic.
The first thing I say is, “Write the piece and let’s see what you’ve got.” On your way to writing, you’re going to come to some understanding and the piece is going to change enormously.
The next thing I say is, “Never write for revenge.” There has never been a revenge tale that has ever worked. If, however, you choose to write about how you tried to get some revenge and you learn that revenge is a soul-sucking experience, that’s a piece I want to read.
So family and getting revenge, that’s not the reason to write. But privacy can cause all kinds of issues for a writer. First and foremost, “Write the piece. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Second, get yourself a good reader who will give you the truth about if you’ve crossed the boundaries.
Third, never ever under any circumstances read your stuff to someone who depends on you for food, sex, or shelter. You don’t want to do this. Don’t read it to your sister if it’s about your sister. Don’t read it to your mother if it’s about your mother.
First get the piece as good as it can be and then let’s see what we’ve got. After that, the privacy issues may be enormous. My sister and I clashed wildly over my first magazine piece. The piece did so much good for millions. She stopped speaking to me because of it because I took our mother public and she didn’t like that.
My sister and I have since worked it out. She’s also a journalist. She didn’t like it initially. She got over it. Things get worked out. There are myriad issues but then the first and foremost thing is to try to tell the truth and try never to use literature as a blunt object.
Joanna: I don’t write memoir. I don’t really read much memoir. I’ve read a few, you know, Cheryl Strayed and people like that. But I’m really interested. A lot of what you say is what we try and put into fiction and into other nonfiction. I wrote a book on career change and a lot of that had stories about my career.
Should bits of memoir come into other forms of writing?
Marion: I think bits of memoir come into lots of forms of writing and poor old memoir has gotten such a bad name. I get into these arguments all the time, particularly on National Public Radio in America about defending memoir. I think I’m going actually get a T-shirt or something that says I actually believe in memoir or something.
If it wasn’t for memoir, you wouldn’t know about the slave narratives. If it wasn’t for memoir, we wouldn’t know about the narratives of the disenfranchised since the very first disenfranchised person could scribble her name in the sand. So we need to respect memoir.
And I think that what happens is that we come away thinking that memoir is just those people, those big-headed people, blah, blah, blahing about themselves. No. Op-eds, op-eds of the editorial page of your newspaper are powerful pieces of personal narratives that are written from women who have decided to inoculate their children despite the fact that they’ve read all the studies that think that maybe inoculations are good or bad, right?
That’s personal narrative. That’s a form of memoir, a memoir, a personal narrative that can help change political policy. That’s an important piece of memoir. You actually have written memoir by my definition. You’ve used some personal narrative to put a face on an issue that you wanna promote.
You want people to get up off their seats and get the job done in their writing, right? So personal narrative has many, many roles, and there’s a bit of memoir in many different forms of writing. Some of them very, very respectable like op-eds. I use op-eds all the time to promote the causes that I care about. Almost always right from the first person point of view, it’s memoir, it’s powerful, and it should be respected.
Joanna: You know, that’s fantastic. You’ve really interested me a lot more in memoir.
Marion: Of course, I told you. I’ll send you one of those T-shirts when I get them.
Joanna: Yeah, I’ll join in. But let’s be realistic.
Writing for the sake of writing is fantastic and totally valid, but what are the commercial prospects for a non-famous individual publishing memior?
Marion: That’s a great question, and the fact is that most people don’t understand that, as I went back to those original three rules, just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting. You’ve got to find your story. You’ve got to find your differentiator. I receive manuscripts all the time in the mail, too, but I actually do read them for a living.
And for instance, I got one recently from a woman who was the only girl on the sports team for a long time in her particular sport, and I won’t give away her story, but she thought her story was about being the only girl in the team. I read that book, and this book is going to be a huge bestseller because what it is is about a woman finding her power.
And when I recast the book for her and said, “Do you see here in chapter seven what happens when you start to find your power? Put that first, make chapter five chapter two, make chapter eight chapter three, rearrange it.” That book is going to sell because it includes all of us.
There’s currently, in America, a bestseller by the CEO of Facebook, but it’s really about how to find that corner office. And for those of us who are artists, I’m not looking for a corner office but I’m always interested in my power as a woman. And if you tell me if your argument is that the sports I played in high school and college are things that I can still draw on in my meetings with people and in my writing, that’s a book for me.
So the differentiator has to be found. What is your story? It’s not, “This happened to me for the past six years.” It is, “What did you learn? What can you teach me? What spiritual place did you get to? What action did you take?” The differentiator has to be something, as the word differentiator suggests, different. And that’s where people make mistakes all the time. It’s not another book on a child who died. It’s a book on what did you do with that situation.
I recently edited a memoir of a woman who had a child who died and we rearranged it so that the last page, she’s stepping up to the podium to speak as a national authority on children who die in the neonatal intensive care unit. We changed the whole scope of the book to be about her finding her power and not a hymn to the dead child, differentiator. So I think most of the time people confuse what the story is about with what happened to them. Just gotta find the differentiator.
As you know better than anybody, you’ve gotta learn how to promote your book, and getting on Twitter and saying, “Buy my book,” is not how to do it, but really finding a community, getting into the dialogue. I think it’s possible that this is the best time in the history of the world for writers and for selling your book. I’m pretty sure it is. I’m seeing some extraordinary small presses, also extraordinarily beautiful presses, especially in the U.S. And really telling people, “Differentiate your story, find the press, and learn how to promote your books.”
Traditional publishers never promoted books. That was never their job. They just make books. Bookstores just sell books. There’s always been a gap there. Writers have always had to take it on. Now, we have the Internet. Now, we have social media. Therein is the problem, is the differentiator, and then the promoting. So I actually think it’s a good time to sell books. And when people don’t know how to do it, let’s help them. You help them. I help them. Let’s help them.
Joanna: Going back on your Alzheimer’s, for example, if someone’s writing a book with the theme that has stuff about Alzheimer’s and they can…that’s actually a way to use nonfiction blogs, nonfiction sites.
It sounds like most memoir would have a nonfiction theme.
Joanna: Yeah, so you’re going to use that?
Marion: It would. I give people this little gift all the time, which is this little algorithm I use. It’s about X, as illustrated by Y, to be told in a Z. It’s about what? It’s about mercy to be told, to be illustrated by the story when I had to take my dog to the vet and have him put down, to be told in a blog post. It’s about justice to be illustrated in a story about fill-in-the-blank, to be told in a fill-in-the-blank book length piece.
If you understand it has to be about something and that about is not you, you will succeed in raising every sentence that appears in that book, every thought that goes through your mind, every question you put to your subconscious.
If you continue to think that memoir is about me, you will never succeed in this genre. But if it’s about something else that everybody else can recognize and you are the illustration of it, you will be better than 99% of the first-time memoirists out there. It changes everything when the book is about something and you are merely its illustration. You see the difference?
Joanna: Oh, yeah. No, that’s brilliant. That’s precisely what I think will make a difference to people. Now, I also think that editing would seem…editing by an external editor as opposed to yourself. I mean, if you’re writing about your own life and things that happened to you, it’s very hard to step outside yourself, and you’ve just explained how you turned around some manuscripts.
If people are looking for a memoir editor, what are your tips for finding an appropriate editor?
Marion: Well, people need to know what they want. Do they want a content editor or do they want a copy editor and a grammar editor, or do they want all of those things? And if you want to good content editor, you’ve got to find someone who’s invested in your success. And they’re out there.
I found some online. I do it for people all the time, for instance, and I know a lot of other people who do. You want someone to assist you in finding your story. A good writing class can be a good place to do that, but again, it has to be a place where everyone is invested in your success. When it comes specifically to editing, it is a million times more difficult to edit your own life, kill scenes from your own life. Just, you know, give that a minute’s worth a thought.
Sometimes, I’ll say to people, “I know you love your sister but she doesn’t belong in this book. She’s gotta go. Her whole backstory is dragging this book down.” That is something that is very cold-blooded but you have to get back to that original argument.
What are you arguing? Are you arguing that life can be wonderful if you have a good cat to love? Then what are we doing talking about the shoes you bought in first grade? Why are we talking about your dead aunt, Pat? Why are we going all these places when, really, you need to get this argument as small as we can, as fast as we can?
A good editor will help you, but self-editing is where it starts. You don’t want to hand any editor a big mess of a mess of a manuscript. Get that argument. Write it on a big old piece of paper.
I have my current argument for something I’m working up on an old manila folder, right, this big. You know, this is just a regular manila folder. Or put it up, write your argument right across here, then divide the thing in half or divide the thing in thirds. This is the first part of the manuscript. This is the second part of the manuscript. This is the third part of the manuscript. And so you divide your argument, right? Life is better with a good cat to love in two-thirds, book one, book two, book three. And you start thinking about the stories that led up to life is better, good cat. Wait a minute, that’s kind of breaking into thirds. And all the stories occur to you at 4:00 in morning, and all of those things, they now have a place to go.
And if you structure your book well, your editor will have a much better time editing it. Editors are as easy as finding them at your local newspaper. All those people don’t make enough money to turn down a good editing job. I have a fabulous copy editor here at my local newspaper I send people to.
But the first and foremost thing you need to do is have a good structure so someone knows what they’re working with, and that depends on your argument. And that’s a long answer, but I think it’ll help people to remember to hang all those stories on a good argument.
Joanna: It’s really helping me.
Marion: I’m so glad. That’s what I do for a living. I love doing this, too. It’s just so fun.
Joanna: Why don’t you tell us a bit more about your book “The Memoir Project,” because it’s got memoir in it?
Marion: It’s got memoir in it. The book began as a blog post, and I had a blog with my sister and two other women called “The Sister Project.” And one day, I started writing memoir tips for people because I’ve been teaching this memoir class for years now. I teach all over the place and I teach…I coach people, individually.
But I also teach these classes and there’s always been a waiting list for the class so I figured, maybe some people would like to read these tips. And the tips just got this huge hits online, and I thought, “That’s strange, how wonderful.” And my sister said, “You know what? That’ll make a great little book.”
And it was the recession and I’ve been previously published by three of the biggest publishers in America, but we decided we would try self-publishing it, just as a wild experiment. So we did, we sold every copy, and only then did I take it to my agent who said, “Oh, I love this book. I can’t wait to send it out,” right? I’ve always kept myself from reminding her that I pitched her the same exact book eight years before and she turned it down.
The book just went into another printing this weekend, which is really exciting. I got an email from my publisher because I made a deal with this book to make it evergreen. In other words, it can never go off out of print. It’s always, always going be available. That was another thing that I learned. With little looks like this, don’t look for a big mess. Say to them, “Well, you keep it in print for me forever because I’m gonna sell the hell out of it for the rest of my life.” And it’s really, really benefited from all of that tender care. But it was really a blog to book conversion that started with a blog post. So I’m actually really sure you can sell a good book these days off of a blog because it happened to me.
Joanna: You’ve given us loads of other tips.
If there’s sort of one message in the book that you’d also like to share with people.
Marion: Write. I really believe in learning the craft of writing, but I really honestly believe that writing is one of the most efficient and productive ways to improve your own life. I don’t know about…I don’t understand anything till I write it down.
My husband will sometimes say to me, “Could you please go write an essay about me so you can figure out how you feel about me today.” And why not, I mean, who’s that articulate, you know, of speech? We say things like, “I love him. He’s like, I mean, he’s like the best guy the world. I mean, like I really love my husband.” Now, what did you learn?
But if I tell you the story of how my husband broke to me the news of one of my best friend’s death, if I tell you about when I came home and found him in the garage waiting for me in his shirtsleeves in the middle of the day. He knew that I was going to hear about this from someone else because she was a well-known jazz singer and he knew I was going to hear it on the radio. If I tell you how he broke it down into little tiny bits of information to reveal to me that she had killed herself, you will know why I will be with this man for the rest of my life. That’s the power of memoir.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, we’ll have to leave it there. Where can people find you and your books online?
Marion: Please come see me at marionroach.com, and it’s Marion with the boys spelling, M-A-R-I-O-N, R-O-A-C-H. Good British upbringing by the way, my family is from Northern England, and come see me there. I’ve got a website. I teach memoir there. My books are there. And it’s just been a joy talking to you. Thank you so much.
Joanna: No, thank you. It’s been brilliant. Thanks for listening today. I hope you found it helpful. You might also like the backlist episodes at thecreativiepenn.com/podcast. You can also get your free “Author 2.0 Blueprint” at thecreativepenn.com/blueprint. If you’d like to connect, you can tweet me @thecreativepenn or find me on Facebook at thecreativepenn. See you next time.