Go Ahead, Write Your Memoirs

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It is hardly news that memoirs are a booming genre in books. Of the top 15 New York Times nonfiction bestsellers for January 30, seven were memoirs, including offerings from George W. Bush, Keith Richards, and Jay-Z. One of the biggest hits of the fall-winter season has been the Autobiography of Mark Twain, volume 1, which has sold well over 300,000 copies despite being eviscerated by Garrison Keillor in a front-page Sunday New York Times book review, who called it "a powerful argument for writers' burning their papers."

Given my long involvement in journalism and publishing, I tend to get a lot of memoirs from others with a background in news. At some point, telling stories from your years of adventures in the field seems to be irresistible. I've probably received a dozen of these in recent months. My counsel is always the same: finish the manuscript even if it has little chance of being commercially published, let alone becoming a blockbuster.

Writing a memoir is a wonderful project. One of the realities of our age is that letters are nearly extinct and these, along with diaries, provide personal records of our lives. When PublicAffairs did the collected letters of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in October, we characterized it as one of the last epistolary autobiographies. For all of his many books, Moynihan never did do a memoir, so the letters are as close as we'll ever get to this unique scholar-politician's self-told saga.

Everybody has a tale to tell. There was a popular feature on CBS News years ago in which the correspondent would pick out a random name somewhere in the country and usually find a story worth turning into a television piece. So the message for the would-be memoirist is this: if you have the inclination and either the material or the recollections to enable the writing of your story, go ahead. Don't let the goal of publication for a general audience get in the way. Commercial publishers choose books based on their potential to reach an audience of reasonable size. Celebrities, either contemporary or, in the case of Twain, historic, have the best shot at being selected. Then there are accounts of hardscrabble childhoods, such as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle. Memoirists in this category have to be careful not to embellish their narratives, or at least acknowledge when they do. The scandal over James Frey's exaggerations in A Million Little Pieces was an example of that danger.

Some of the best memoirs are really biographies of family members whose own stories have the power of great fiction. A plug here is required for my friend John Darnton's forthcoming Almost a Family, being published in March by Knopf. Darnton's father, Byron (Barney), was one of two New York Times correspondents killed in World War II. John and his brother, Robert, the historian, were raised by their mother, a complex figure. But at its core, John's book is a meticulous reconstruction of the life of the father he never knew. Its strength is its literary merit, a characteristic that is crucial for a memoir, providing the emotional impact that makes it worthwhile.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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