‘Each Life Can Teach Us’: Bestselling Author Steven Gaines on Memoir Writing

Why are so many people writing memoirs? Expiation? Ego? Money? Revenge? 

One reason is that access to social media has given the average citizen the misimpression that people care what they had for lunch. Andy Warhol was wrong when he said in the future everybody was going to be famous for 15 minutes. The future is here, and everybody is famous for 15 seconds, the length of time it takes to write a 140 character Tweet, or to post a vacation photo on Instagram, or catalog moods, movie reviews, and bad affairs on Facebook. The ease of publishing Print on Demand books, and ebooks, has given all of us a shot at being Proust.   

A while ago I rang up my friend Wendy Leigh, an author who also wrote the bestselling book, Life With My Sister Madonna, with Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone, and the present bestseller, Shirley Jones: A Memoir, among several other books. (By the way, a bestselling ghost writer’s fee starts at about $100,000, and tops off at around $250,000, when there’s a big advance involved. The Pulitzer Prize winning author JR Moehringer reportedly got $1 million to write Andre Agassi’s book Open.)  I told Ms. Leigh about the phone calls I receive nearly weekly from people who want me to help them write their memoirs. Ms. Leigh said she gets calls too, and when she’s approached for her services, she always asks, “Why do you want to do this, aside from the money?”

“The answer is always the same,” she said. “It’s about leaving a mark. Everybody knows they’re going to die, and writing a memoir is one last stab at immortality.”

It’s true that there is a deep psychological need for people, especially when they get older, to leave behind their story, if only for their family and grandkids. This is especially true for Baby Boomers, who are, after all, the “Me Generation.” Life is ephemeral, and we want some control over how we’re remembered. When we get older we begin to sift through the stories of our lives and fit them together into a narrative to make sense of it all. Committing it to paper gives our time on earth shape and meaning.  

Personally, I think the desire to write a memoir is a good thing. I applaud anyone who wants to tell the story of his life. I believe each person has a unique story, and that every life can teach us some lesson. But if you’re writing your life story hoping to get rich, unless you’re a celebrity or a TV star, good luck to you. Here’s a good piece of advice: Many years ago I interviewed the late Jerry Wexler, a rock and roll legend who signed Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to contracts at Atlantic Records. I asked him about all the unsolicited tapes he received from people hoping to be discovered, and he said that he encouraged people to put their songs on tape. Wexler said that the desire to make music was a gift from God, and that if you wanted to sing, you should sing out—but don’t expect anybody to pay you for it. 

Bestselling author Steven Gaines will be contributing a monthly column to BookTrib where he will give insight and perspective into the craft of writing, sharing his wisdom and offering life lessons through literature. 

Preview and purchase Steven Gaines’ memoir One of These Things First here

Leigh’s Life With My Sister Madonna and Shirley Jones’ own Shirley Jones: A Memoir can be previewed below:

 

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