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By Frank Connolly
Senior Editor, MindEdge Learning
If you want to get a book published, it can help to be a celebrity.
Take a look at the various New York Times Nonfiction Best Seller lists, and a lot of what you’ll find are celebrity memoirs. At the top of the main list is the ghoulishly titled I’m Glad My Mom Died, a memoir by the former Disney sitcom actress Jennette McCurdy. Also on the list are memoirs by actress Viola Davis and comedian/talk-show host Trevor Noah; number-one among audio books is the aforementioned McCurdy opus, followed by offerings from actor Matthew McConaughey and rock star Dave Grohl. Lurking just below the top-15 lists are tell-all tomes by the likes of “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk, Olympic skier Lindsay Vonn, Doobie Brothers vocalist Tom Johnston, ’80s sitcom actress Valerie Bertinelli, comedian Terry Crews, and of course Ozzy Osbourne, the inexplicably popular former frontman for Black Sabbath.
Who knew that so many “famous” people had so much to say?
It didn’t used to be this way. Many years ago, back when I was young and the Earth was flat, the Nonfiction Best Seller list was where you’d go to find books about history, politics, and sports, with a few biographies sprinkled in for the sake of variety. Finding a bona fide memoir—a nonfiction narrative based on the personal recollections of its author—was a rarity.
But things started changing about a quarter-century ago. Since the mid-1990s, memoirs have been all the rage in the publishing business. David Pelzer’s A Child Called It (1995) and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1999) helped trigger the memoir boom; the McCourt book, which won the Pulitzer Prize, became a runaway best seller. And, because book publishers have an understandable interest in selling books, it made sense that celebrities—people with a built-in fan base of potential book-buyers—would get lots of opportunities to tell their stories.
The good news, though, is that memoir is not the exclusive domain of celebrity authors. Many of the best memoirs of recent years were not written by brand-name writers; in fact, the memoir boom has democratized the book business by showing that writers who are not famous or “special” can tell stories that people want to read. For every Jennette McCurdy or Ozzy Osbourne, there are many more John Smiths and Jane Does who have turned out interesting, amusing, and poignant life stories.
The memoir boom is the product of larger technological and social trends that have taken hold over the last quarter-century. The rise of personal computers and the Internet gave storytellers easily accessible platforms. Suddenly, bloggers could write for an audience of millions, and aspiring authors could publish their own hard-copy books through online publishing services. At the same time, the Baby Boom generation came to maturity, and many of those Boomers were more than eager to tell their stories to the world.
All of which, taken together, means that there are more opportunities than ever for average everyday folks—I’m looking at you, faithful reader—to tell their stories.
Before you sit down in front of your computer, however, you should understand that there are several distinct sub-genres of memoir. The type you choose to write should depend on your own life experience:
- Travel memoirs are stories of personal growth or adventure that take place on the road. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley in Search of America—the saga of a cross-country road trip by the Nobel laureate and his pet poodle—is a classic of the genre. Two other good examples are The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux, the noted travel writer, and Eat, Pray, Love by journalist Elizabeth Gilbert.
- Transformation memoirs chronicle how the author dealt with a life-changing experience or challenge. These memoirs often address the idea of personal redemption (though the author may not always achieve that goal). Typically, these memoirs focus on coming-of-age stories, accounts of overcoming addiction or substance abuse, or stories about how the author found religious faith. Good examples include Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by novelist Marya Hornbacher, and Girl Meets God by historian Lauren Winner.
- Confessional memoirs focus on stories of inappropriate past actions or behaviors. Most frequently, it is the author who confesses their own bad behavior, but sometimes the writer will point an accusatory finger at a parent, former lover, or ex-boss. Notable confessional memoirs include Prozac Nation, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s account of coping with depression and self-doubt, and Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, which alleges horrific incidents of child abuse by the author’s mother, actress Joan Crawford.
- The personal memoir is currently the most popular sub-genre of memoir. It is the classic “average person’s story,” recounting the experiences of someone who has neither fame nor fortune—but who does have a good story to tell. These memoirs generally focus on one particular event or experience, detailing how that event changed the author’s life and world view. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and its sequel, ’Tis, exemplify this type of memoir.
Once you’ve chosen the type of memoir you want to write, you’re ready to start telling your story to the world. And really, how hard can that be? Remember: if Ozzy Osbourne can do it, you can, too!
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