When I first came across a display of YAY! LiFE! magnets at Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store, I immediately thought of my friend Heather Kennedy. Heather has been saying “YAY!” for years. Not in a shouty way like the all-caps and exclamation point might suggest, but in a simple conversational way, a lighthearted expression of in-the-moment joy.
“Yay, Champassion!” she would say upon receiving her favorite drink at Hotel San Jose lounge in Austin, where we both lived a few years back.
“Yay! This is fun!” she said recently as we settled into our seats at a Rockies game, now both residents of Colorado.
As you can see, you can apply YAY! to pretty much anything (although you might want to be careful about what you put on the back of your car; as far as I can tell, the YAY! DELOUSING! magnet has yet to be developed).
YAY! serves as both mini-applause and encouragement, the latter of which I could have used last month after attending Lit Fest. Put on by Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Lit Fest is two weeks of all things literary. There were workshops in fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and poetry, among others, and events from business panels and salons to a book fair. There was also the opportunity to have a literary agent review a few pages of your manuscript and provide feedback in a 20-minute session.
I attended 9 of 10 business panels, one salon and two agent sessions — all well executed, incredibly informative, and chock full of creative writer types. But as far as my memoir, I walked away discouraged. Discouraged because what came through loud and clear from the agents I met with and the business panels that I attended was how hard it is to get a memoir published via the traditional agent/publishing house route. Unless you’re famous and/or are the only living offspring of Sasquatch or some other astounding circumstance, it’s a steep, craggy, slippery, jagged, climb in cheap heels during an avalanche of snow and stale molasses. I exaggerate but not by much. The publishing world has changed and memoirs by unknown debut authors are really hard to sell.
For a memoir to make it out of an agent’s slush pile, it has got to:
- Stand out from the pack. It’s not enough to survive cancer, for example, which is kind of appalling, but I get it. (There are tons of cancer memoirs on the shelf and it’s a bit crushing to see them on the 50% off rack but it happens all the time.) It’s got to offer a fresh, compelling perspective. (If only the onco nurse had snuck the blood of a magical pterodactyl into my chemo cocktail, which ended up curing my cancer while also giving me the ability to fly through time, and play the “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on the fiddle. Hello Fresh Air! Here I come Ellen!)
- Be exceptionally well written.
Even with these requirements met, and a determined agent attached, captivating a publishing house enough to invest in a memoir is not guaranteed. There are beautifully written, immensely engaging, heart wrenching yet globally inspiring stories being turned down all the time. Writing is only part of it. It’s a business, after all. Daunting but crucial to know.
So what’s a memoirist to do?
Look at the flip side. People love memoirs. I love memoirs! I quick request on Facebook yielded a bevy, some of which I hadn’t heard of, including:
- Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo’s Quest for Enlightenment
- The Liar’s Club
- Life and Death in Shanghai
- Carry on Warrior
- Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin
- Dying to be me
- Almost French
- Jesus Land
- Hyperbole and a Half
- Teaching the Cat to Sit
- Both Sides Now — I sat next to the author, Nancy Sharp, for a brief period of time at one of the Lit Fest panels, and in a separate panel, listened intently as she shared insights on writing and publishing her story. She has amazing energy and I cannot wait to read her book.
- Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person — Of all the cancer-related memoirs I’ve read, I most identify with Miriam Engelberg’s, as she takes us through the process of crappy cancer at 43 with her unique and incredible sense of humor. (Tragically, she passed at 48.)
So there’s a market for memoirs by the unknown. It might be small depending on one’s story but as far as my manuscript is concerned, that’s fine. It’s also good to know that while traditional publishing is possible — challenging but possible — it’s not the only route. Self-publishing is an option too. Hybrid author, Holly Robinson, does a great job explaining the pros and cons in her Should You Self Publish? blog post on Huff Post Books. There are many factors to consider but we memoirists do have a choice.
My discouragement hangover after Lit Fest wasn’t a setback as much as a reminder that I don’t want to just finish my memoir, I want to finish it well, and that will take time and hard work. This will require an indefinite supply of YAY!s along the way, and very likely the help of a local book coach, whom I’ve connected with thanks to the folks at Lighthouse.
I haven’t seen a YAY! MEMOIRS! magnet yet, so the one I created above will have to do. And you know what? I feel encouraged already. YAY!
Are you a debut and/or unknown memoirist? What has your experience been like? Share your thoughts below. Favorite memoirs from anyone are welcome too!