Essay vs. Memoir: How to Tell and Sell Your Own Personal Story
Writing about your own life can be tricky.
How much do you divulge? Do you tell the people you’re writing about that you’re writing about them? How do you find publications that take essays? Should you write a memoir?
We asked Jen A. Miller, a prolific freelance writer and author of the new memoir “Running: A Love Story.” Here, she share her insights and advice for writers interested in writing about their own lives.
We typically think of memoirs as being written by someone “of a certain age.” Why did you choose to write a memoir?
I’ve been writing personal essays since I was 18, so I’m used to sharing my life. When I started freelancing, I did the same. My first big running story was a reported essay for the New York Times, and the response to the personal bits was huge. After a nonfiction running book (someone else’s idea) didn’t happen, I turned my brain to writing essays about running. I wrote another piece for New York Times called “Running as Therapy,” and reaction to that was so big that I thought I should keep going. And here we are. “Running: A Love Story” covers 10 intense years. That time ended three years ago. It was enough space to write about it.
When writing about your personal life, how do you decide how much personal information to include?
In the first draft, I write everything, then take out what doesn’t help tell the story. There are little things that may seem important to me but the reader is not going to care about. Take out what impedes the flow. After that, it’s a personal call. When I signed up to write a memoir, I said I wouldn’t hold it back. I didn’t. That’s not always easy. Your family reads it. Your friends read it. When you get a bad review, like I did today, they’re trashing the way you tell story of your life. You must be OK with all that. Then, of course, before publication, the lawyers get involved – but write first, and worry about the legal read later.
The best example of writing personally but sharing select details effectively is this essay in Runner’s World.
Did you tell the people you wrote about that you wrote about them?
It was on a case-by-base basis. Everyone’s names and identifying details were changed whether I did or not. I called or talked to my family soon before the New York Times ran an excerpt. Some writers have the hardest time with the family angle. I have a close family, so it was awkward but worked out just fine. But since memory is a fickle thing, I tried to interview people when I could.
What if their recollection of events is different from yours? Do you change your story or go with what you remember?
I went back and investigated where I could (this or that way on the course?). If not, I used what I recalled since it’s my story. Fortunately, I wrote race recaps after I ran some of them, so I had those posts to refer to when I wrote the book.
What advice do you have for someone wanting to write a personal essay or memoir?
For essays: Practice. Try to write every single day – and not blog posts, but material you can shape and edit. If you need help on starting up (or starting again), check out Writing is My Drink. I went to it when I started the essays that became “Running: A Love Story” even though I’ve been doing this for some time.
For a memoir: I had the first (very bad, incomplete) draft of “Running: A Love Story” before I approached agents. I had four chapters done in the proposal that went to publishers. Some need more. Memoir writing is a serious time commitment where you’re not guaranteed a book at the end. It takes practice and a leap of faith. Also: read essays and memoirs. You’ll see what works for you and what doesn’t.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten is an old one: Read 10 times more than you write. I still do this. It helps.
How long did the memoir process take you, approximately?
From the first terrible draft through publication, just over two years. In that time, I also had to write an agent pitch letter, pitch agents, choose an agent, do a proposal to go to publishers, choose the offer, sign a contract and then – oh yeah! – write the thing. Then go through edits, legal read, publicity until: publication day.
If someone is interested in getting a personal essay published, how do they find an outlet for it?
I go back to something I said before: Read essays. Like that outlet? Start pitching. This is why reading a lot is crucial.
Most outlets want to see the whole essay, not an idea (even if you’re established). I sometimes have an outlet in mind. If they say no, I edit/adjust and pitch to the next target on my list. Don’t have any idea where to start reading good essays? Read the Best American Essays series. See where they were published.
What should writers not do when writing and pitching an essay?
Don’t send attachments. Don’t tell a sob story as to why you need the essay to be published. And don’t send pictures. Follow the “Keep It Simple, Stupid” philosophy: Show editors the essay in the body of the email, and get out of their inbox. And if the editor rejects it, they can do so for a lot of reasons (not enough space; something similar already running). Don’t get snippy. You want to keep that door open for when the right essay of yours meets a need that editor has. Also, avoid signing “work for hire” or “all rights” contracts. You’d be giving them rights to your story and your life. Oh, and don’t write that essay for free, even if someone says you’ll get exposure for it. Just don’t.
Any other advice on writing about your own life, whether for a personal essay or a memoir?
This kind of writing is very personal. It’s not for everyone – and that’s totally OK. You may be trying to write about something still too raw. If so, step back, write a funny piece about your dog, and come back. That might be two weeks later. That might be too years later. Don’t hurt yourself to do this. “Running: A Love Story” took a lot out of me. I don’t think I could write another book like this. And that’s OK with me. Oh, and expect to make people angry, sometimes for small reasons (like they disagree about how you described their hair color). And keep at it. I started out writing very bad personal essays when I was 18. I’m 35 now. I still have a ways to go.
What are you working on now?
I just wrapped up a piece for espnW. The New York Times Well running newsletter just launched; I’m part of the team working on that too. You can sign up for that newsletter here. I am also on my spring book tour! You can see those dates here. Oh, and I’m training for my sixth marathon – because I decided to do something physically exhausting at an already exhausting time. I write a weekly newsletter about all this, if you’d like to keep up: http://www.tinyletter.com/jenamiller.
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Maria Perez is director of online community relations at ProfNet, a free service that connects journalists with quotable experts.