How to write about your life
Agents contact me on a regular basis to ask me if I want to do a book about my life.
I say no.
I say no because I have no idea how to do a book about my life. I'm sure I have no idea because I already have had a six-figure book deal to write about my life that I'm not delivering on, and the editor has dumped me. (Read: Phone calls to collect on the large advance I've already spent.) So my qualifications to tell you advice about how to write about one’s life are questionable. But whatever; I have never stood on ceremony over qualifications.
Maybe the problem is that my life story needs a redemptive moment. This is what my agent-who-is-no-longer-my-agent tells me. And this is a warning to any agent who thinks they might want to be my agent: My past agent dumped me because (even though I did deliver on my first book deal) I am terrible at writing book proposals and I am terrible at following publishing industry rules. And her number one rule is that if you write about your life there must be a redemptive moment because people like that. “That's what sells,” is my not-my-agent's way of saying “That's what people like to read.”
So, okay. I try to see that. I mean, I've read plenty of memoirs – Girl, Interrupted, Smashed, Darkness Visible—all good books. All very redemptive at the end, for sure. But I've also read Anna Karenina. Well, I haven't, but I'm able to spoil the ending for you right now anyway (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want the spoiler). She gets hit by a train. I think she kills herself.
That seems redemptive to me. I mean, at least she doesn't have to wake up to her same problems every day.
I have told this to my not-agent. She said that people do not want to read about my fascination with suicide. It's true. I am fascinated by suicide: Why don't more people kill themselves? Life is very hard. And there is no sane reason to believe it will, at some point, get easier. So why do we keep going? I don't know. This fascinates me.
(Here is a great book of suicide letters. And here's a tidbit for all you productivity gurus: People in their 20's who kill themselves write suicide notes about how much they love the people who will be most hurt by the suicide: their parents, a boyfriend maybe. People in their 30's and 40's write suicide notes that are informational to-do lists: Where the cat food is, when the kid's homework is due, how to find the keys to the safety deposit box.
Both types of letters are great examples of how people have totally lost perspective when they kill themselves. This baffles me, since I also feel that we have totally lost our perspective by choosing to not kill ourselves.)
Okay. So I told my not-my-agent that my proposal for a memoir is redemptive because the reader will see that I did not kill myself before I got to the date of the national book tour.
That did not work for her.
So I said my book is redemptive because I had an insane childhood and look, now I'm not living on the street.
My agent told me that my life is too precarious for my surviving childhood to be redemptive. She told me I could write about keeping my marriage together even though we both have Aspergers Syndrome, but before I could write the proposal (and convince my ex that this would be okay to write) we divorced.
What about writing about the divorce?
She said divorce is not redemptive. I'm pretty sure that's when she told me to get a new agent.
Okay. So back to me telling you how to write about yourself. I say, forget about redemption. It's false. I read The Glass Castle, and I think it's nice Jeanette Wallis got out of her hell-hole family, but really, I want to know what her fights with her husband are like on her zillion-dollar Hamptons estate.
I think you should write the truth. Be real. If you obsess about redemption instead of the truth, you'll be like me, writing nothing, because life is not redemptive. Life isn't like that. Just write your own messy life, and let it spill out.
But, wait. Here's the problem with that. Your life is boring. I'm sorry to tell you this. But actually all our lives are boring. Which is another strike against obsessing over redemption: it doesn't make your life interesting, but good writing always makes life interesting.
So you need to tell something true to make people want to read, but you need to be interesting doing it.
Do you want to know what interesting is? How many articles and stories and blog posts have you read about getting fired? Six million, right? Everyone wants to tell their story. Most suck. But here's a great one: The CEO of Sun wrote a tweet to announce his resignation. It's interesting because of the media he chose, it's interesting because of the timing, and it's interesting because it's a haiku:
Financial crisis/Stalled too many customers/CEO no more
The bar is high if you want to be interesting. What can you do? Here’s what I do:
1. Assume you are not all that interesting. The reader does not want a peek into your life. Not enough people care. Do you know how I know? Because porn is boring. Sure, if you're using it for masturbation, it's interesting, because then it's giving you something. But if not, what are you doing watching? Who cares about someone else's sex life? And you can be sure that the peek into your life is never going to be as interesting as a porn movie. So forget writing a blog post merely to give someone a peek.
2. Cut fifteen percent of everything you write. Because no one is so interesting that they can't cut words.
3. Write to give the reader something they want. I try to focus on this with every post I write. But in fact, this is advice about how to do anything in your life: Help people as much as you can. Give people what they need, and if you focus on that, the rest will fall into place. This is true of how to network, how to parent, how to manage people and also how to write about your life.
So really, the world is full of ways to give to each other, and we're all just looking for the best way. And this, in the end, is probably why we don't kill ourselves.
Penelope, your agent, like many agents and publishers is an idiot. How many books, now considered great, were rejected by untold agents and publishers. Writing IS about telling the truth. You have an interesting story to tell. Please find another agent so I can read your book.
i think point 3 is very important, you have to keep your audience in mind and make sure that they are getting something out of it as well
I like reading about the real messiness of life. I like the honesty of your writing. And reading about you wondering why more of us don’t commit suicide literally made me laugh out loud. But maybe that’s because I’m being medicated for depression right now.
Your writing reminds me Anne Lamott, my favorite memoirist (I also love her novel Blue Shoe– have you read it?) Messy, truthful, not-redeemed-once-and-for-all, but hopeful. I would love to read a book about your life.
..so just dig up your old posts and publish as an autobiography by blog post. They could be in chapters like ‘the farmer’ ‘being a mother’ and you could make comments on the original posts. (by the way, starting a successful company is pretty redemptive!)
So which is it? good writing always makes life interesting?
or you need to be interesting to write your life story? Chicken or the egg?
I really believe that good writing can make any life interesting.
Amen to that, Penelope.
And good writing is what is missing from most people, and from most memoirs.
I agree! If it is well-written, it will get read :)
ps it’s Jeanette Walls, not Wallis
I used to own an art gallery in eastern Europe. I’m originally from Canada but i went to live in Estonia from 1990 to 2004.
The transition from a soviet system to a capitalist system was traumatic for some. I had 3 artists commit quick suicides. One set himself on fire, one shot himself in the head, and the other hung himself. All male. The first and last when they turned 50. There were also many many long drawn out suicides, usually via alcohol.
I think many of us are committing suicide and we don’t even realize it. We just give it other definitions.
I could talk about this theme for hours.
Penelope, I follow your blog on my RSS (though not religiously) and you have had some great posts – one of my recent favorites was the one about hating Tim Ferris. Much of his book was good, but you cut right to the sticky points.
Anyway, long wait today to get to the payoff (three tips), but a fun read and good tips. They’ll be especially useful for me on Facebook, where I try to be interesting and often wonder why more people don’t appreciate my terribly exciting life. Thanks for reminding me of something I often tell others – “nobody cares”. But I mean it in a good way!
Hi PT: OK, I want to comment, but I decided to respond in my blog, which you inspired me to start writing, which I started on 1-1-10. So I am commenting here: http://janhogle.wordpress.com/
I think you should write about your life but read my blog about that,
The Ferret Mom in Madison
I haven’t read Anna Karenina and it’s on my list. I didn’t know what happened in the end and I didn’t look away quickly enough after your perfunctory spoiler alert. Boo!
It's all baffling to me; why I haven't killed myself, I haven't been killed, and more so that I haven't killed anyone. Just being alive is redemptive.
Not seeing divorce as redemptive is possible only by someone who doesn't understand redemption. I've gone through three of them, I'm now sure there will not be a fourth, and I'm fine with that.
Writing is a tremendous gift to others, it's your gift to so many, Penelope. Thank you for what you write about yourself, it's career and life advice.
Remembering what you have written is something I carry with me.
Thank you, for me this is easily one of the most fun-to-read entries in the long series of your blog. Yes, giving what they need is tough also because the line between giving what people need and giving what people say they need is too blurry most of the times. The latter, in wors-case scenario, leads to sucking up (which is appropriate in some cases).
This one was great, especially the takeaway at the end. Human being are social creatures and we are meant to collaborate to make our lives easier. When I look at some of the most successful people I know (atleast the ones who are both successful and happy) I think they bring the same attitude of “how can I help someone get what they need” into their career. This allows them to accomplish a lot while putting things in perspective and maintaining a positive outlook about the grind along the way.
We live lives of accumulated errors. All the little mistakes add up. If we admitted this we would kill ourselves more often. We also live lives of accumulted small successes which are supposed to balance out the errors. The two are almost never related. They may be connected when we see others AE’s and do something about it that comes to fruition/ redemption. They may be connected when medicene intervenes to stop the self abuse or the course of AE’s in nature. Redemption should stay in religion where it does something physcological for the believers. Ask those with cancer about redemption and radiation and chemo are not at the top of the list.
I like this, Michael, even though it is gloomy.
Redemption is like love or quality of life–too big to define. Like an octopus with tentacles.
And what “saves a situation” (a possible definition for redemption) may be very different from person to person and from time to time, seems to me. AND so few things are permanent fixes–so that you or I or Penelope may need re-redemption.
Others have linked hope to redemption. This may work. Preserving hope.
If the agent/publicist meant that P needs a happy-ending flavor, I strongly disagree. Ask Will Shakespeare: tragedy sold as many or more theatre tickets as comedy sold. Likewise, learning a lesson from one’s life story is overrated. Rilke said you must embrace the questions and let go of having answers (resolution or redemption).
Who knows when resolution or redemption comes, if ever. Let it go. Live the moment with a willingness to trudge on, believing that beauty or small rewards (or small successes, as you say) may come at some point. It is like having a good work ethic–keep working, keep trudging, do some sweating, nurse your aching muscles next day . . . and believe in yourself, that you are able and getting more able (stronger).
Great post. Most editors do want to try to sell books about redemptive stories. I have to admit I like to read them too. This is part of that love of escapism you wrote about recently as well. I was really disappointed when I read a novel a few years ago that was about a woman trying to fight infertility. In the end, she gave up. I found that really depressing and not fun to read the end.
I do also see some of your Aspergers, I’m guessing, in the part of being occupied with the thought of suicide. Either that or I’m just too happy about life. I know I have my unhappy moments, but I believe what my mother told me about suicide, “It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” I believe things can be fixed. I do believe in redemption. But I do agree life is terribly messy and so far in my life everything has happened for a reason. In most cases I feel that reason is to help me be a stronger person.
Giving up on her fertility may mean that she is choosing her battles; that it was too costly; that another option opened up; that she cultivated letting go and was ultimately able to let go (Zen style); or . . . . . . none of which is depressing to me. Just IMHO.
Brilliant post. I love rule 1 – a great piece of advice for any author or blogger. Rule 2 should probably be 50% though. Thanks!
We might want to ask the question: Why does redemption sell? Making educated guesses about the answer(s) might lead to holding up the proverbial mirror to society.
Which may prove interesting.
I think this crazy post here is my favorite yet.
I came across this quote today and thought of this post…
There are lots of ways of being miserable, but there’s only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.
– Edith Wharton
Have you seen this article?
Its about how Aspergers syndrome is an asset for some jobs on NPR.
I’ve always considered suicide to be a viable alternative to problems.
I don’t like reading about other peoples lives unless they’re:
1) Absolutely fascinating – Hitler, Napoleon and Caesar
2) Or completely trashy (ie. if Jerry Springer was real)
I like to write about my life by giving people advice–in my case, dating advice. Then, the “peek” into my life is me telling them how much of a dating dummy I used to be. They are usually very funny and informative stories–or at least that’s what my commenters tell me.
I used to consider suicide an option. In fact, I looked at suicide as my comfort zone when life got too tough and I got too tired. My nephew blew his head off on Mother’s Day, making a strong statement about his unhappiness and anger with his parents. I watched my sister and so many others suffer from his one big decision–including the son who was born after his dad was gone. Suddenly, suicide didn’t seem so romantic or such an indulgence. I got another wake-up call when I witnessed a dear friend die within two months of a late-stage cancer diagnosis. She was the empitomy of health (always worked out, ate right), motherhood (mother of four good sons), grace, and strength. I then figured that life is very delicate and that I was going to do my best with this life that God has given me. I also got a damn good psychiatrist and therapist to work through my physical and mental issues. My work will never be done, but I’m dong my best. I deserve a better life. Thanks for sharing your truth.
Sometimes suicidal thoughts are just the mind obsessively toying with a forbidden idea, not actual depression leading to planning a suicide. Meditation eventually helped me gain perspective on suicide thoughts as mere thoughts, just like “I have to go out buy Twinkies right now, even though it’s the middle of the night and I hate Twinkies,” and thus possible to shrug off. Turns out I don’t have to be the slave of every whim that my mind suggests. (Whew.)
I’ve also come to see the difficult parts of life as being like walking a too-long uphill path. You can sit down and cry and whine “carry me!” or you can keep going until you reach the crest, have a view, appreciate the toil and strength it took you, and start downhill on the other side. I wonder how many old senior citizens deeply regret not killing themselves years earlier? Worth asking them, right? My guess is, not a lot, because by then they have seen all that they would have missed.
Life may be hard in any particular moment, but we rarely advise our loved ones to kill themselves to get out of THEIR difficulty. Imagine, your friend comes to you in despair, and you say logically, “Well, you could always kill yourself.” NOT! Because then there are rain bubbles on a streaming windshield, and R.E.M. on the radio, and it’s all deeply beautiful.
Over time, one learns to extend that hope and compassion to oneself.
As a “newbie” to the blogging world I found your article to be very interesting, looking forward to skipping through the archives and future articles.
I wrote about my life and for some reason it was easy but very emotional, I only wish some publisher would believe in me enough to publish the 2nd edition….i self published the first edition and now..i am almost ready to print the 2nd…i found it inspirational, it was a self healing program for me to write and see where i had been and where i am now. but i understand your not wanting too, it is something you have to want to do and put your heart and soul into it.
Again, I’ve journeyed into the delicate mind and feelings of Penelope Truck.
This post touched many sensitive issues in all of us, and you have received numerous intelligent comments, as always. So for now, I will briefly talk about depression, that foggy melancholia which heartlessly sucks the joy out of our days for no apparent reason.
I lived with it for years, sometimes even gagging while getting out of bed to go to work, choked by ambiguous fear. To break free of my dis-ease, and my resentments, through the years I studied (and participated in) eastern philosophies, metaphysics, meditation, channeled therapy, chanting, creative visualization, Sufi twirling, psychic enhancement training, music therapy, single malt scotch, pot, LSD, mescalin, and a generous helping of love and support. None of the above took the pain away, until…I met an American shaman trained at the Four Winds Society.
I was skeptical, but open for possibilities. I believed the idea that my body energy, my mind/spirit energy, even my thoughts, were blocked and locked. And so I allowed the shaman woman to “treat” me over a period of four sessions, each one being a gift. And then it came…finally, after so many years… personal “Redemption.” I mean that in the way you used the word. I got my happy ending. I got my happiness back.
Am I 100% free of fear, stress, depression and resentments? No. But most of that debilitating resistance no longer hampers me. I don’t know how she energetically released me, but she did somehow. I wish I had met her thirty years ago.
Don’t ever give up, Penelope. Miracles do happen.
“…I have no idea how to do a book about my life.”
Couldn’t you just go through all your old blog posts, clip out the parts that are autobiographical, arrange them in chronological order, fill in the gaps, and have someone help you edit it for consistency and flow?
Keep adding on until you and The Farmer get married (that’s back on, right?), then end the book there. Let the implication be “and then they lived happily ever after.”
If you don’t live happily ever after, well, then you’ll have material for a sequel in a few years.
I agree giving people what they want is probably what keeps us going through the thick of shit. Writing about your life is both therapeutic (for you/we/I who are writing it) but writing only about giving people what they want can also be a bit boring as the person may come across in their writings as ‘perfect’. When actually, I find the people’s blogs I find most interesting are the ones that DO occasionally (and maybe that’s the key: balance by occasional, rather than always) give me a peak into their lives, because it helps me see I AM NOT ALONE in my crap! That some-one else is going through it too! Yet they are sharing inspirational stuff at the same time.
I think the media encourage delusions and feelings of inadequecy by portraying images of false perfection . . . .
Penelope, I am one who has never had any interest in writing my story, although I have been fortunate to have had some wonderul experiences. But that changed recently (well partially) when my son told me some of my early experiences really interested him and he suggested I write a book. AFter thinking about it, I started writing and the more I got into it, the more I enjoyed recalling and reliving as many life experiences as I could remember. And of course, there were some less than pleasant things which I quickly discarded. After three months, I finished the story up to year 2000 and I may add to my 141 page saga in a year or so. The point I want to make is I enjoyed every moment it took to look back on my life and relive the memories. My son and daughter have thanked me for doing it and seem pleased to have some voids in their knowledge revealed. Should I publish it? No need to…the world I’m interested in has read it.
What attracts me to your writing? You are both practical and transparent–both big sellers. Baffle “not-my-agent.” Write the book.
I am so sick and tired of the publishing industry and the music industry telling me what I want to read and or listen to. They treat the purchasing public like children.
People only want “redemption” because that’s all the industry GIVES us.
What’s wrong with “To Be Continued . . . “?
Wow. I often wonder why more people don’t kill themselves too!
Great post and I agree with your mom. It is wonderful to see advice given and then violated in the same post.
You are correct–our lives are often boring. I try to talk about things I believe my audience is interested in, but felt inclined to share this. Restrained, to be sure, but for me it’s close to oversharing.
Maybe you should take your time and think about it. Sometimes, you don’t know yourself as much as you think you do. I feel the same way about myself because sometimes I don’t even know who I am, it’s a confusing world.
Hope I will create a great profile in the light of above article :)
You might be difficult to work with, but your agent was not doing you any favors by not helping you come up with that redemptive moment. First, surviving your childhood has been done successfully as a memoir (see Wasted by Marya Hornbacher and How I Learned to Snap by Kirk Reid). Granted, they work because they end right at the end of childhood, as the authors head into adulthood, but you could easily make that work for you. Second, you could also make your divorce work as a redemptive moment — while it leaves you with challenges to face, it also gives you new freedom and a chance to remake your life. Ending a book on that note, showing divorce as liberation (which has been done by many before you, and sold), would work.
I know you’re not going to write a book about your life, but I think you could do it, and do it well, if you work with an editor before getting to the agent stage.
Writing about your life is often the hardest thing to do. It takes a deep understanding of oneself that most people can’t do or can’t do very well.
You know, I’ve just stumbled across this blog – and you Penelope – and now I think I will be addicted to reading it.
I also am amazed why more people don’t kill themselves, when times get tough it’s hard to pull yourself through for one more day.
And then, last night, I watched an Australian movie titled ‘The rabbit proof fence’ a true story in 1931 about 3 little Aborigine girls walking 1500 miles to get back to their mother and homeland. It made me feel embarassed by how weak I can be – ready to throw in the towel at times. Is it that we have life too comfortable these days? Do we really need to experience horrendous events to see how wonderful the slightest blessing is?
I wonder if so many people thought of suicide during the two World Wars? Anybody know?
You might think you know what you want but really life can effect the way you see and think about things.
Just my 2 cents
I never really examined the story of my life?
Life can be so great and you make it so much harder on yourself than it needs to be.
“I think you should write the truth. Be real. If you obsess about redemption instead of the truth, you'll be like me, writing nothing, because life is not redemptive. Life isn't like that. Just write your own messy life, and let it spill out.”
I read certain things and it sometimes reminds me of other things. This paragraph brought Seinfeld to mind. The show about nothing. I like Seinfeld and still watch some old shows but sometimes it gets so ridiculous and hilarious at the same time.
As far as a book about your life, maybe it should be handled as a resume might be – by someone else.
Also I miss and look forward to your next post. Webinars have their place but they are no substitute for the written word. It’s like TV and radio – you need both and neither one will replace the other!
I too am baffled by society’s suicide rate. You stated:
“I have told this to my not-agent. She said that people do not want to read about my fascination with suicide. It's true. I am fascinated by suicide: Why don't more people kill themselves? Life is very hard. And there is no sane reason to believe it will, at some point, get easier. So why do we keep going? I don't know. This fascinates me.”
Clearly we are biologically programmed to survive but to get up each day and struggle through the adversity that accompanies so many people’s lives, it’s astounding more people don’t hurl themselves, like lemmings, over a cliff.
Perhaps that is your redemption story right there. At the end of the day each of us finds the hope or promise we need. And we and cling to it for at least for another day, week or year.
Life should by easier that you see it Penelope.
But talking about life it’s a difficult choice
Here are few more tips as well:
1.Just start writing!
3.Honesty is everything
4.Detail, detail, detail
5.Go at a comfortable pace
7.Use photos to jog your memory
8.Look for themes in your life
I think you’re too young to write a book. I mean Rock stars can write autobiographies in their late twenties because all their good years are essentially behind them. But yours aren’t.
See where your company goes, see where your relationships go, see how well your children turn out and THEN you will be able to write a book with redeeming qualities.
Life is very hard. And there is no sane reason to believe it will, at
some point, get easier. So why do we keep going? I don't know. This
I’m the same way. On all points.
I’ve just recently found your website/blog. I must say I find you quite interesting, knowledgeable, and always seem to have something relevant to contribute. Life is about making yourself, your family and those close to you happy. You clearly have something to offer the world and have over and over again. Forget about people who think you need to write another book or somehow post redeeming qualities. Maybe, in the future you will or maybe you won’t. Keep doing what your are doing. Those of us who follow are better for it.
Great topic. Blogging, and by extension writing a book regarding personal feelings is a deeply difficult task. Especially if like me you are both an ego maniac and a introvert with a low self esteem. I actively blog, both for work (previously involved with Bet 365 marketing) and in a personal blog that is topic focused around marketing in the search field.
I wouldn’t want to at this moment in time, write or blog about my personal life, but perhaps this is because I am still too tightly wrapped and need to do some work in therapy (partly how I found this blog on google). Great site.