’Tis the season of memories, and leaving a record of personal experiences is one way to connect with future generations. It also can be therapeutic for the writer, says memoir instructor Margo Hammond, who teaches monthly workshops at the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg using specific Salvador Dalí paintings and writings as catalysts.
We caught up with Hammond, 63, founder of the Creative Late Bloomers blog and a former book editor at the Times, to ask her about what people get out of writing memoirs, how to get one published, and which among many is a favorite.
Patti Ewald, Times staff writer
What's the difference between an autobiography and a memoir?
An autobiography is an account of an entire life so far. A memoir is a slice of someone's life, an account of a personal experience that usually focuses on a single topic or a single time frame.
Why should one write a memoir?
Many people write a memoir to leave a legacy for their children and grandchildren. Wouldn't you love finding your great-great-grandmother's diary and learning how she lived? But writing a memoir, it turns out, also is good for you in the here and now. Scientific studies have confirmed these happy results: Challenging ourselves as we grow older stimulates the growth of new brain cells and boosts our immune system. In one groundbreaking study, seniors 65 to 103 who engaged in activities run by an arts professional, including creative writing workshops, were found to experience fewer falls, fewer doctors' visits, less frequent feelings of loneliness and depression and better overall health than the group who did not.
How long should a memoir be?
Some people manage to tell their story in just a few words. Check out smithmag.net, home of the six-word memoir, where new postings are published daily. Some recent offerings: "Joined different dots, formed new picture." "Election over. I approved this message." On the other hand, an erotic Victorian memoir by "Walter" (his real identity has never been discovered) that chronicled the author's promiscuous love life and was published over seven years beginning in 1888 eventually took up 11 volumes. Grove Press later republished it under the title My Secret Life in two volumes; it weighed in at 61 pounds and was 2,359 pages long. In other words, memoirs should be as long as the story you have to tell.
What's the best way to get a memoir published?
The traditional way to publish a memoir is through a traditional publishing company like the newly merged Penguin Random House. First you need to write a proposal that describes your memoir, your qualifications to write it and its chances for success. Then you have to find an agent who agrees to shop your proposal around to the various publishers. You don't pay an agent. They earn their fee when your book is accepted by a house interested in printing, distributing and publicizing your book. The house will offer you a sum of money in advance, 15 percent of which is given to the agent for negotiating the deal. If your book sells well enough to pay back that initial advance, in addition to the upfront money from the publisher, you will receive royalties — about $1 a book.
You can also self-publish your memoirs. The easiest way is to buy an ISBN number and bar code, then take your manuscript to a print shop like Kinko's and have it bound with the ISBN number and bar code on the cover. You pay the print shop per copy and then you can sell those copies yourself. For a more professional looking self-published book, you can contract with a Print on Demand company such as Amazon's CreateSpace to create a digital version of your memoir. These POD companies offer editing and design services. Customers can order the book either through the POD company (you earn a royalty on each sale) or you can buy copies of your own book at an author's discount and sell them directly to customers. A third way to self-publish is to offer your memoir only as an e-book through a self-publishing site like Smashwords. There you can post your memoir at no cost to you and set the price for its download. Each time someone downloads your book, you will be charged by Smashwords, but you get to keep 85 percent net of the rest of the profits.
What is your favorite memoir?
My favorite memoir is Somewhere Near the End: A Memoir by British editor Diana Athill. It's a gutsy, funny, honest look at old age written by someone who has been in that "strange country" for quite some time now. The year Athill turned 92, the book won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Costa Book Award. In June 2010 a documentary about her life, Growing Old Disgracefully, revealed that she had moved into a retirement home, but hadn't stopped writing. On Friday, she will celebrate her 95th birthday. She is living proof that it's never too late to write a memoir.