If you're wondering how to get started on writing a memoir, remember: What got Proust going was a madeleine. • Not many people want to undertake a seven-volume, 4,000-plus-page opus like Marcel Proust's modernist masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past. But what kicked off the French author's extravagant flood of memory? Biting into that cookie. • A simple sensory trigger can bring back the past for almost anyone, Margo Hammond says. When she presents workshops and lectures on how to write and publish memoirs, she says, "I bring cookies."
Hammond is the former book editor of the St. Petersburg Times, co-host of the Book Babes radio program on WMNF-FM 88.5 and co-author of Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures.
What got her involved in the memoir form was not a book of her own but one written by her mother. LaVerne Hammond began writing a series of columns for the Times when she was in her 80s; after her death in 2006 at age 92, her daughter decided to collect them into a book.
Post Scripts: A Writing Life After Eighty was published in 2008. Hammond chose to self-publish it through Amazon.com's BookSurge, now called CreateSpace. She says she has been surprised at the reception for a book she thought of initially as a project to share her mother's work with family and friends.
"It's been amazing. I got a call from the Hillsborough County libraries asking about my book. I thought they meant my book," she says. The library had Between the Covers in the reference section, they said, but they were interested in Post Scripts for their "Books in a Bag" program for book clubs, which packages 10 copies of a book, reading guides and other items in one bag. They told her they thought it would be "a perfect book for seniors to get together and talk about. I said, 'You know it's self-published.' They didn't care."
Not just the famous
Editing and marketing her mother's memoirs led Hammond to teaching others how to create and publish their own.
Memoir is an enormously popular genre; just a glance at the nonfiction bestseller lists will reveal memoirs by everyone from Elizabeth Gilbert to Christopher Hitchens, from Laura Bush to Tori Spelling.
But it's not just the province of celebrities. "You don't have to have had a famous life to write a memoir," Hammond says. "Anybody's life can be interesting, especially to the younger generation."
That being said, though, Hammond advises, "You'd better not be in it for the money." The vast majority of authors, of memoirs or any other kind of book, don't make a living from their writing.
But writing your memoir can serve other purposes, such as passing on knowledge and experience to younger generations and sharing family history. A friend told Hammond's sister she was lucky to have a mother who wrote so much her daughters could publish a book. All she had that her mother had written down was a grocery list.
Who should write a memoir and how to publish one are questions faced by all writers in any genre, Hammond says. "The most important thing is to begin."
One important tip she gives would-be memoirists is that memoir is not autobiography. "It's never the whole picture. It's a slice of your life."
That can help people focus — writing about your childhood summer camp or the garage band you played in during college may be less daunting than trying to cover five or six decades.
Those sensory triggers are often vital. Hammond brings to her workshops not madeleines but pfefferkuchen, a spicy type of gingerbread cookie her mother writes about in Post Scripts.
Food, with its evocative flavors and aromas, can often bring back vivid memories. Old photos, letters, music or souvenirs might work for some people; for others, something as simple as remembering the color of a girlfriend's prom dress, the scent of a grandfather's grape arbor, the whistle of the train that ran through a neighborhood late at night might open the mind's gates.
"It's amazing what pours out" of people who come to her workshops, Hammond says. She often suggests a technique her mother used to get started: "She wrote letters to dead people.
"She was a wonderful letter writer, and by the time she was in her 80s a lot of the people who had been in her life had died."
One woman, she says, wrote a letter to a friend who had just died and had always wanted to write a memoir herself. "She cried when she wrote the letter, and she cried when she read it to the class. I think writing it was an expression of her grief."
Delving into our memories can bring up traumatic experiences, but there are ways to approach them positively, Hammond says. She cites Maya Angelou's classic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou wrote about facing racism and sexual assault in her childhood, "but she combined it with the good things about growing up in the South."
Workshop participants sometimes ask, "Can I lie?" No, says Hammond; if you choose memoir as your form, you owe your readers an honest account. "That said, everyone's memory is faulty, and we all see things through different filters."
Sometimes what we don't remember can be revealing. One person, Hammond says, mentioned having shared a bedroom with her sister as a child. How did that work, someone asked. "I don't remember anything about it," she said.
Some people worry that family or friends might be offended by how they're portrayed in a memoir. "Have courage," Hammond says. Your loved ones might like your memoir more than you think.
Do it yourself
But many people, having gone through "the hard slogging work of writing," want to publish. That means making a realistic evaluation of who might want to read your book and how large that audience might be.
"It might just be your family, and that's great," Hammond says.
But if writers want a wider audience, Hammond always encourages them to try a traditional publisher. That usually means finding an agent.
"I just cringe when I see how fleeced people can get. They ask me, how much should I pay this agent?" Reputable agents aren't paid up front; they earn their fee when a book is sold to a publisher.
That process can be difficult and time-consuming, and even if a publisher accepts a book, a year or more might pass before it sees print. How to find an agent is tricky. You might ask friends or acquaintances who have had a book published for a referral. One resource is Jeff Herman's exhaustive Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents (Three Dog Press, 1,000 pages, $29.95).
If a memoir garners only rejection letters, Hammond says, "the good news is that's not the end." Self-publishing has exploded in the past decade with changes in the technology of how books are printed and sold. In 2009, according to the Bowker book information company, traditional publishers brought out 288,355 new titles. In the same year, 764,448 titles were self-published.
Self-publishing — which basically means that the author pays to have a book published, rather than being paid for it by a traditional publisher — gives the writer much more control over such features as cover, title and content, Hammond says. But it also means the author is responsible for editing and designing the book, or, more likely, paying professionals to do those tasks. And it means the author must market the book, a considerable task.
Many authors have had great success using social networking to sell their books. Hammond also recommends thinking outside the usual venues for selling a book. "Bookstores and libraries aren't the greatest places to sell your book" at book signings — people are distracted by all those other books. When she has taken her books to coffeehouses, they "flew off the tables."
"It's food again — the smell of coffee makes people want to read."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected]