I’ve been reading and editing biography, memoir, and self-help built around personal stories for more than 20 years. And I recently published a light memoir of my own. They can be the most amazing, draining, and rewarding books to write. And they can change the world in special ways, for the writer as well as their readers.
In all these years, I’ve seen this phenomenon again and again: a memoir or personal story has turned into a different book.
My suggestion to you today would be, if that’s happening to you, if your memoir is “turning on you”… don’t fight it! See where it goes.
Don’t feel you must cling to your original purpose. You might be surprised where that feisty little book takes you.
Here are some stories of people I’ve met who have experienced this very thing.
Kristina Olsson: Boy, Lost
I was blessed to attend a memoir-writing masterclass with Kristina Olsson at the Brisbane Writers Festival a couple of years ago, and I blogged about it afterwards (read the article by clicking here – she gave some incredibly useful tips). She’s a journalist and a teacher, as well as an author with more awards to her name than I’ve got socks in my drawer (even if you count the odd ones).
She is warm and witty and very wise, and if you ever get a chance to attend one of her workshops, jump at it!
Her family memoir Boy, Lost is about her mother’s first, violent marriage, and the half-brother who was stolen — and the impact these events had on her whole family for decades to come. It has won 9 awards, many of them highly prestigious.
But the memoir almost didn’t happen! Kristina initially wrote a novel The China Garden as a fictionalised version of some elements of her family story. That was the only way she could tell it at first. The wound in her family was too raw. She found that this released her to access the difficult true story that needed to be told.
KC Andrews: Broken to Brilliant
KC Andrews is an Australian author who recently launched the book Broken to Brilliant: Breaking Free to Be You After Domestic Violence at my local library.
She told me, “I have wanted to tell my story for years, but I never had the confidence.” She longed to write a book challenging the preconceptions of the people who enable family violence to go on and on, year after year, generation after generation.
Being accepted a couple of years ago to write a chapter of a book about surviving in business gave KC the new idea that perhaps she could write her personal story. “I basically declared that I was going to do it. As corny as it sounds, I put it on a vision board.”
But as the book began to take shape, she discovered it was turning into something much bigger than just her own story. And it had a different purpose: to show women emerging from domestic violence that there is hope and the possibility of a fresh start and even success in life.
“People sat next to me at dinner parties and started to tell me about their story. I would invite them to be in the book. These people also knew other survivors and often referred women to me for inclusion in the book.”
Many of the contributors found writing about their pain so hard that they needed to return to counselling to deal with the issues raised.
KC said, “Because I continued to speak with them and bring the focus back onto how much they have achieved, they reported that even the process of thinking about being in the book was hard but of value.”
“Most women had to be helped to see how much they had done to rebuild their lives. They had never taken the time to reflect on how far they have come and how much they have achieved — myself included.”
KC has now established a charitable foundation to support women in rebuilding their lives after domestic violence, and is developing a whole series of books. And it all began with a chapter she wrote for a business book.
Tanya Arnold: Pupcakes recipe book
Author, speaker and Pupcake Queen, Tanya Arnold, is a client of mine, a friend, and a colleague in presenting memoir workshops. She says, “Pupcakes was the first book I completed, though it wasn’t the first book I started to write. I had always planned to tell my story in a different way, through the self-help genre, and I still plan to do so.”
“It was after experimenting with an Easter egg recipe for dogs that I thought what a great idea it would be to one day create a recipe book. I began to play with different ideas and began conceptualising the themes and recipes for the book.”
“It wasn’t until nearly 2 years later that I decided to take the necessary action to create the book. I was exhausted and sleep deprived after caring for my 1 year old and desperately needed to do something for myself, while taking care of her. Once I made the choice, life showed up and provided me with all the resources I needed. In small increments, I got there in the end.” Pupcakes: Honour the Divine Dog is now out in the world.
Even though a recipe book wasn’t on Tanya’s to-do list originally, and seemed a strange way to write a personal story, she’s glad she did it. “I discovered that creating a dog cake recipe book was my calling at the time and it did still allow me to share my story with the world.”
“It’s one of the things I am proudest of because I did it. While I did have great help, I know in my heart that it was up to me to complete it. Achieving such a mammoth task is something to be very proud of. I know I will enjoy the process even more the second time.”
Tanya took a video the day her sample copy of the book arrived — she has made it private now, but viewers were delighted to see the deep emotion she felt at her achievement.
Ernest F. Crocker: Nine Minutes Past Midnight
Ernest F. Crocker is a highly respected medical specialist, a man of faith, and a client of mine. He had spent ten years interviewing other medical professionals from various parts of the world as he tried to work out what part God played in the healing process.
The book he wrote from his research wasn’t quite working for him. It was a collection of other people’s stories, some miraculous, some sad or frustrating, and they didn’t seem to match or pull together in a cohesive whole.
Then he discovered that the real story was not a report about things that happened to other people, but a personal account of his own journey of discovery. That’s when everything changed. The order of the stories and the way he wrote them changed, and the manuscript gained new energy and focus… and a publisher who had previously turned it down!
The resulting book, Nine Minutes Past Midnight: Medical Encounters with a Miraculous God, has now been reprinted multiple times, and published in new countries and other languages — because he allowed his book to “turn on him” and become something different.
Belinda Pollard (me!): Dogged Optimism
I had been noodling around for several years writing notes for a book about my snake-chasing terrier, because people had said: You really should write a book about that dog. The more I wrote, the more I began to realise that I couldn’t tell her story without telling some of my own. That was the first big shift.
Because I wanted it to be a light-hearted book, I struggled with how to write about some of the bleak times that occurred during her very long and eventful life, like serious illness and the death of my beloved dad. I didn’t want to drag down the tone of the book.
The book turned on me again in the final couple of months before publication, thanks to insights from my incredible team of beta readers. (I’ve written a detailed article previously about the process I used for my beta reading team on this particular book.)
My beta readers wanted me to go deeper. They wanted me to take more risks. And they helped me see how I could keep the tone of the book light, even though it has those moments of sadness or pain. They gave me permission to make that book what it seemed to need to become.
Dogged Optimism: Lessons in Joy from a Disaster-Prone Dog made it into the world as a very different animal than the book I saw in my mind’s eye 3 or 4 years earlier! It became a series of life lessons for pet lovers, told in the form of a personal story, with the dog’s feisty personality as the unifying theme.
Dogged Optimism recently won Bronze in the Forewords Reviews awards and was a finalist in this year’s Next Generation Indie awards, which has been incredibly encouraging. (All writers are insecure!) It’s also been consistently in the top 20 pet essays on Amazon Australia. I doubt any of that would have happened with my original concept.
But there is more to publishing than awards and whatnot. I feel so much joy when I hold this book, because it represents a much bigger piece of my heart than that collection of silly anecdotes I first set out to write.
What about you?
What’s your story? Is your book trying to become something else? Sometimes, the way you discover that this is happening to you is that it just doesn’t seem to be working. The manuscript seems to be all knees and elbows, and there’s no flow. Or else it’s flat and predictable.
It can be intimidating to face the fact that your book wants to become something else. Sometimes — but not always — it can mean a lot more work when you’re already exhausted.
The best thing to do in that case is to take some time out, and get away from the manuscript for as long as possible so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. A week, six months… it varies from person to person how long you might need.
If you have some wise and trusted beta readers, this is a good time to get their opinion on what’s happening to your manuscript. But do be aware that if you’re not a confident writer, and your beta readers are also inexperienced, they might express themselves too strongly, and you might be swayed by their opinions rather than listening to your own heart. You might end up writing their book instead of your book.
In the case where both of you are inexperienced, listen to your beta readers with respect and interest, but don’t act immediately on their suggestions. Let it settle for a while. Take time out from your book again. If it’s something you find helpful, you might like to pray or meditate. Or replenish your creativity by painting, sewing, playing with your pet, or hiking in nature — whatever is your thing.
Then come back and look at your book again with clear eyes. Tape a large sheet of paper to the wall, and write the main features of your story on it — each feature in its own small box. Then draw lines from box to box as it becomes clear to you how they are connected.
Then stand back and stare at it for a while while you let your mind roam. Who do you want to reach with this book? And how do you want to affect them? You might want to help them, move them, inspire them, challenge them. In a space on the sheet, write a description of your target reader, and your purpose. (Both of those might change later, and that’s OK.)
Keep this sheet to refer to as you rework the manuscript. (Or if you did it on a whiteboard, take a photo with a smartphone so you can keep a record of what you worked out.)
In the process of doing this exercise, you may find that clarity emerges. You can see how to make your book work better in its current shape, or you might have a vision for how to turn it into something very different, with greater confidence to pursue that path.
I’m interested to know what happens for you if you try this process. Let’s talk about what’s happening with your book. Join the conversation in the comment section below.