My heart breaks when I hear these words. People do suffer unspeakable horrors. But then some people want to write about it in an uplifting way. And it’s my job to tell them that their efforts are almost certainly doomed. Here’s why.
1 These Genres War With Each Other
A memoir, by definition, is all about you.
Self-help is not about you. It, by definition, is about what helps the reader.
These two aims are fundamentally opposed. They are almost impossible to reconcile.
Of course, many self-help authors include personal stories. But stories in this context serve only as illustrations and examples. They are not the point.
2 Overcoming Adversity Is Not Enough
You suffered and lived to tell about it. I celebrate that—really. But this alone does not qualify you to offer help to other people.
People are infinitely complex, and their circumstances differ widely. Do you actually have the credentials and experience to help all of them?
Yes, we learn from experience. But your particular experience may be so unique that it can’t be generalized. And, the lessons that you drew from your experience can self-serving, biased, or flat out erroneous. If that’s true, then what you have to say might actually hurt people rather than help them.
3 You Have to Ignore Feedback From People Who Care About You
Your friends and family members care about you. They’ve known you for a long time. They’re naturally interested in you. Of course.
This is exactly why they are worthless as sources of feedback on your writing.
If there are gaps in your writing, friends and family can often fill them in. They have a rich context that most readers will never have. Plus, these folks want to protect your ego. This means that they will stroke it instead of telling you what they really think.
4 Your Life Story Must Be Compelling and Unusual
Most of what we do is utterly forgettable. We get out of bed, run our routines for 16 hours or so, and then go back to bed. Honestly, who cares?
Beyond that, many of us live for decades with complications that are never fully resolved. This is not uplifting. It’s just sad.
Yes, there are people whose raw life story is inherently dramatic (Malcolm X, for example). Are you one of those people? Really?
5 You Have to Write Well
Writing a good book is a long slog. Chances are that your first attempt—and your second and third—will not be worth publishing.
It takes time to get good at writing—a lot of time. Usually this means cranking out hundreds of thousands of words for practice that never see the light of day.
Here is what amazes me: People commonly acknowledge that mastery of a field—anything from plumbing to brain surgery—takes years of time and effort. Yet these same people want to strike gold with their first attempt at writing.
For more on this topic, turn to people who are wiser than me:
- April Hamilton on why Hubris, Not Bad Writing Or Design, Sinks Most Self-Published Nonfiction
- Rachelle Gardner’s excellent posts about writing memoirs
- Jane Friedman on 3 Questions Every Creative Person Must Ask