Memoirs are For Famous People. Who are you to write one?
Someone once said to me, “Memoirs are for famous people. Who are you to write one? You are Vietnamese, and nobody’s going to read it.”
Indeed this comment shocked me and hurt my feelings, but I quickly recovered and steered clear of this negativity and today, I became one of Amazon Best Seller Authors in my category of Asian American Studies books.
You see, memoirs aren’t just for famous people. Yes, there is a category in biographies for celebrities and politicians, but there are also rooms for many of us to shine brightly because we have the tenacity and courage to share our stories. Think about it, who could better tell your life story than you, yourself?
Before you dive in head first, know that writing a memoir is an arduous and emotionally draining endeavor, but it’s also a therapeutic and cathartic process to address some of your unresolved past issues while helping others at the end when your book is published.
This article is not a how-to but a cautionary tale of what it takes to write and market your memoir.
First and foremost, focus on the message of your autobiography, is it to inform, inspire, entertain or educate your readers about a life dealing with specific issues and your takeaway message. Collect as many physical documents and oral history as possible. Talk to as many people as you can to collect and support background details, and fact checks dates, events, and timeline for accuracy and credibility.
Secondly, get ready for the fallout. Write as thoughtful and compassionate a memoir as you can, and there will still be some sort of fall-outs. For example, I don’t know how I would feel if my siblings wrote their memoirs. Would I have concerns about how they would portray our family and of course of me? Of course, I would and I have empathy if they objected to mine. I do get their concerns.
Another example of why people would object to documents like these is the Vietnam War Documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novack, I remember thinking, “Hey, that’s my war and my pain. How dare you document it?” Of course, it was a fleeting thought because I knew it wasn’t my war! This war affected millions of people and suffered through it to varying degrees. The debut of this documentary gave me an understanding of how my siblings and relatives might feel robbed that they didn’t have a say in what I wrote and shared with the readers at large.
3. Thirdly, have thick skin! You wrote to share “your” perspective and how you personally felt about these events, and you hope to impart some knowledge and lessons in historical circumstances in which you participated in and what it was like for you. This was my case where I shared my growing up years in Vietnam and coming of age in America as a refugee. I shared my personal perspectives, misgivings, and lessons learned as a teenager growing up to a young adult in a new land. (I did share my manuscript with my family and asked for their input and used the versions by those who responded to my request.) I can’t rewrite my history and experience to replace the losses, but I could choose how to feel about my past and how to proceed with my future.
Above all, support, encourage and celebrate others who share their stories and not trivialize their life challenges and effort to write their memoirs. These are documents and testimonials of what made up our society and the changes that happened in it historically and sociologically, but not taught in U.S. History classes or in detailed in history books. In writing our memoirs, we dissect our lives with an effort to understand ourselves and our relationships to the external forces that formed us with the hope to help others going through the same situation that they are not alone, or those who didn’t have a voice to speak up for themselves.
Write a memoir not only for better representation and visibility of social or political injustices especially for the community of color, but also for those who are like you but couldn't speak up for fear of ostracism, safety, and retaliation.
A Cambodian American attorney friend of mine once told me that she wished she could tell her story but was afraid of being killed like the late movie star, Haing S. Ngor, in the Killing Fields. I have compassion for her fear but feel sad that the world won't learn about the injustices that she and her family endured. Write your story if you can. If you don’t tell your story, who will?