Almost everyone I have known has said to me, at one point, “I could write a book about my life.” So if you feel that way, you’re not alone. But if you hope for commercial success, you’d better have a darn good story—or a darn good ghostwriter. Before you type up your diary entries from your breakup/bootcamp/band experience, ask yourself the following
1. Do you have an interesting story/slant?
Many people are tempted to write to share their personal tragedies (cancer, losing a parent to Alzheimer’s, recovering from drugs, divorce). But be careful not to confuse writing as therapy with writing as art. The brutal truth is, readers don’t necessarily want to be reminded that everyone’s life is hard (and if they do, they usually look to fiction). Readers often read memoir to be reminded that everyone’s life is different. What is your unique story? And how can you tell it differently than anyone else could?
2. Are you betraying your loved ones (or family, if the term “loved ones” doesn’t apply)? Can you live with that?
Most writers have had the experience of publishing something that culls a few—okay, maybe many—details from real life and then enduring the less-than-thrilled reactions of their friends and family. The number of objections can be high—you misrepresented me, you stole my story, you exposed my secret, you painted such an unflattering picture, you have no respect for your hometown and hardworking parents, etc.—so plan your defense accordingly.
3. Do you remember enough?
You might be surprised, when you sit down to write a story you think you know by heart, by just how many compelling details you don’t remember, or just how many facts you’ll have to check with your mother/best friend/ex-husband (and then fight over, à la Woody Allen and Meryl Streep in Manhattan). Conversely, of course, you might be surprised at what a flood of information pours out when you sit down to write a story you thought you didn’t remember well.
4. Are you tempted to embellish?
A few years ago, nonfiction MFA classrooms were primly appalled when well-known essayist John D’Agata went head to head with The Believer’s fact-checker to uphold Truth over truth. D’Agata changed names and events—facts, in other words—because he felt his version rang more emotionally true. But journalists and other normal people who felt that changing these details without acknowledging them as fiction amounted to, well, lying, thought he was doing the art of nonfiction a disservice. Remember the James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces fiasco? Most readers would have appreciated the book being marketed as a semi-fictional novel rather than a memoir. So if you think your story needs a little fictional boost, consider writing a novel instead.
5. Do you have a plan?
Just as you wouldn’t (hopefully) sit down to write a sci-fi or a romance novel without having some sort of idea of where it’s going, you shouldn’t approach your own memoir without a roadmap––general direction, roadside attractions, pacing. If your plan consists of “I want to write my life story,” you may not get anyone besides a few dutiful grandchildren to read it. In writing a memoir, you put yourself in the position of editing your own life, sometimes mercilessly. But if you just type up your diary and put it out there, I promise you: your readers will have far less mercy.