Friday, August 11, 2017

Creative Nonfiction: What About Memoir?

by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston

We might as well get the bad news out of the way first... 

Many are written but few are chosen.

We are a people fixated on reality TV shows. We are fascinated with sharing each other’s opinions in 140-character bytes, and are infatuated with posting the daily details of our lives on Facebook, along with the other two billion people doing the same.

So, given the popularity of peering into each other’s lives, why is it so hard to sell a memoir?

Poorly written, me-centered, navel-gazing confessionals have done a disservice to an otherwise powerful way to touch lives through narrative. I recommend you check out industry pro Jane Friedman’s tough love advice for first time writers. And Cindy Sproles' post, The Good, The Bad, & the Memoir, where she addresses some of the reasons memoirs are such a hard sell. In particular, the dreaded lack-of-platform problem, and the heavy focus on self over substance.

In fact, recently at a writers conference, I watched the very scenario Cindy mentions unfold at the lunch table. A zealous conferee, hoping to prove the specialness of her story to the acquisitions editor, launched into her tale, scene-by-scene, year-by-year. After ten minutes, the editor looked as though she’d just been pitched a book on making mittens out of mouse skins.

All this could be disheartening for those of us who not only enjoy “true stories well-told,” but also hope to publish our own. After all, the book of Nehemiah is a memoir—a first person account of his experience building a wall—and individual narratives make up a significant portion of the Bible.

Couldn’t the Lord use our life stories to teach or encourage someone today, even if we’re not famous or infamous?

At the risk of having acquisitions editors throw cyber tomatoes at me, I want to encourage you to pursue that passion in your heart.

So here’s the good news: 

There’s more than one entrance to the publishing stage. You might want to try the back door.

You could:
  • Think small. Refashion a stand-alone chapter and pitch it to a magazine.
  • Blog your niche. Especially if your topic has a specific audience —how a horse changed your life, or growing up in an RV. (Well, maybe not.) Julie Powell’s blog about making every recipe in Julia Child’s cookbook over the course of a year, led to a book and movie deal.  And Molly Wizenberg’s blog led to a column in Bon Appetit.
  • Submit to an anthology. Many writers have proudly started out with a submission in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series.
  • Pitch a column. Your local newspaper may welcome your quirky take on life around town.  
  • And my favorite. Enter contests.

Several years ago I entered my memoir in the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference contest. (Whew!)Winning that gave me the confidence to enter another contest, which garnered the attention of a publisher.

I remember the irony of the day. The deliveryman had left a while before, and I was back at my desk. An email caught my attention. It was from a New York agent I had queried a year earlier. She must have been working her way through her slush pile, but I was amazed she had even bothered to respond after all this time. She said although she thought my story was fascinating, she couldn’t sell a memoir of someone who, in effect, was a nobody. She wished me the best.

I smiled, broad and wide and looked at the boxes sitting alongside my desk. Author copies from my publisher—Thomas Nelson.

There are many reasons a memoir doesn’t make it to the publish line, but if that story in your heart keeps sticking as close as a noonday shadow, don’t let it go simply because you’ve been told you’re a nobody.

Because with God, even a Nobody is a Somebody—and sometimes they get published.


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.


  1. Excellent post, Marcia. The back door ideas give much hope to this Nobody, aka, Somebody. :)

    1. Dear Somebody, aka Cathy--Thank you. And--you do pretty well at any door!

  2. Thanks for the encouragement and suggestions, Marcia. I particularly like the idea of submitting one chapter to a magazine. I could try that. More people may read a short snippet than an entire book anyway.

    1. Yes, and it's pretty exciting to see a finished, published piece no matter how big, or small.

  3. Congratulations on your success, and thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Amazing post, Marcia. I agree on the backdoor approach and not just for memoirs.

    1. Thanks Ingmar. You'r right It's a good way of entry across many genres.

  5. Love the encouragement. I can envision the smile when you got that email surrounded by boxes of books. The fickleness of publishing.

  6. Thanks Tim. Yes, I loved the timing of it all.

  7. Marcia,
    I'm second-guessing my work, but know my story is relevant, compelling, timely and authentic. I realize I need to have my ms heavily edited for navel gazing as I can't see my mistakes as easily, but I'm praying and asking God's will be done because my story DOES have substance and may be able to make a difference. Just that conviction and love for the burden He's called me to write is enough for me to try. Thanks for your inspiration.

    1. Good critique partners can help a lot with this by being the first eyes. I think its so hard to know whether your story is resonating on a more universal level. Best!

  8. I teach people to write memoirs at LSU in Shreveport and the first question I ask my students is whether they intend to commercially publish. If that's their dream, I do my best to get them into a fiction writing course, because I find that the framework of fiction is often the best way to create a commercially-viable memoir, even though the stories are (or should be!) true in a memoir.
    This is a great post! If I may, I'll mention your 'back doors' in my next class and recommend your books.
    Thank you!
    Sally Hamer

    1. Sally, I agree about learning storytelling craft. My favorite way to study memoir is to read and observe others whose work I enjoy. And yes, indeed, use whatever information you find helpful. Thanks