The decision to write a memoir is not to be taken lightly. Having done it, a retired USAID FSO shares his experience.
BY FRANK J. YOUNG
Heading into retirement, it’s natural to look back and reflect on one’s career and life over a job span that, in the Foreign Service, may be 25 years or longer. There is great temptation to want to commit memories and events to paper to show family and friends what you experienced in your many assignments and at many posts. Perhaps you want to write about a seminal experience that influenced you in ways that explain the life path you chose, or simply catalog a life well lived in service of your country.
There are many reasons why any of us may be tempted to write our story. They are not likely to include matching literary wits with a William Faulkner or Toni Morrison, or making The New York Times Bestseller List. Yet writing about one’s life can be such a heady experience that it’s easy to forget the point of it. Eric Idle once mused in his own memoir, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, that writing a memoir is at once thrilling and a bit shameful.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a meaningful enterprise. My memoir about my year in India at age 19, which was published this past January, took 11 years, 22 drafts, and eight copyedits to complete. Two years into the process, in 2013, I took a memoir writing course that helped me figure out how to write a book that someone (even if only family members) would pick up off the bedside table. It took me five years to settle on a title. My family had doubts that I would stick with it. Let’s face it: writing a book about yourself is hard. It takes energy, tenacity, and focus.
Here are questions for you to ponder before embarking on what may be the most challenging thing you ever do: Why am I writing this? What is the story I want to tell? Why would anyone, outside of my family, want to read about me? They are easy questions to ask, but you may struggle to come up with answers that will justify the time, effort, and psychic anguish that writing your own story will entail.
How did I do it? I started with the draft I hurriedly typed in the summer of 1970 after my return from Bangalore, India. It was raw but contained the passion and emotion of an experience that was still fresh in my mind. I didn’t do much with that draft. My parents and friends were never allowed to read it. The storage box of paper quickly found a shady space in my bookcase and then followed me, unopened, for the next 40 or so years as I moved from California to the East Coast and through four different overseas posts. When I first retired, in 2005, I thought about resurrecting the manuscript but had yet to find the creative spark needed for a rewrite.
July 2011 provided that spark. I was returning to India on temporary duty as USAID director. As I emerged from the customs hall at Indira Gandhi Airport on that hot Delhi night, the assault of the sights and smells on my senses brought me back to that earlier India experience, a moment both surprising and intense. It was now time to revisit the fading pages of my 1970 manuscript.
After returning from India, I pulled my manuscript from the storage box but didn’t begin writing right away. Instead, I read two useful manuals about memoir writing: The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick and Writing About Your Life by William Zinsser. There are many useful guides to writing memoirs, but these two were the ones that helped me the most. Both guides laid out the basic principles of memoir writing, chief among them: Don’t write a travelogue.
Then, I asked myself the three questions cited earlier. I knew my family would be interested in my experience living in South India in the late 1960s, but would it appeal to a broader audience? Would writing it for more mass appeal contribute to a cause that I feel passionately about—namely, study abroad and cross-cultural education? Did I have the discipline to finish the book? It took my return to India in 2011 to find the answers to those questions that had eluded me for four decades.
That’s when the heavy lifting began. I needed to understand exactly what I was writing about. The word “memoir” is derived from 15th-century Anglo-French, meaning “something written to be kept in mind.” The teacher in my 2013 memoir writing course cautioned me not to write a Fodor’s-like account of my life or do a copy and paste of my journals and letters home. She suggested that I take that raw material, and my earlier draft, and turn it into a compelling story using the voice of who I was then. The story had to have a protagonist (me); an arc that lays out the path for the story to follow that knits me, other people, and events together; a conflict; and a dénouement. If this sounds like writing a three-act play in the first person, then you get the picture. But that was only the start of how to think through the memoir’s framework. Decisions about structure, characters, and interpretation were essential before I could go any further.
Organization and timeline were among the most difficult narrative elements. I decided early on that the memoir would not have a chronological flow, and instead start in the present day and then loop back to February 2011 with the critical discovery of my letters home (aerogrammes in those days) hidden in my mother’s house. These letters provided the connective tissue linking my memories to my journals. I then chronicled my arrival in Delhi on temporary duty in July 2011 that had sent me into a time warp, back to my days living in Bangalore in 1969. I used that moment of overwhelming nostalgia to describe how it energized the writing process. From there, I took the reader to the day of departure for India, Aug. 24, 1969, and let the story unfold.
As I was creating the book’s structure, I also began to develop the main character: me. Here, the challenge was to make my character relatable, authentic, and credible. I wanted the reader to identify with my character to the extent that anyone following my life during those eight months in India could imagine having the same experience. If the reader could say, “Yes, I can see that,” or if friends and colleagues who have lived in South Asia could say, “Oh gosh, I remember feeling the same way,” I knew the sweet spot had been hit.
Authenticity is critical; then the people, places, and events in the book live in the moment. To achieve that, the facts have to be accurate and correct, especially place names and descriptions of streets, markets, weather, ceremonies, and cities. This required considerable research to ensure my memories had not distorted the facts. When in doubt, I reached out to others who were there at the same time to verify details. One challenge to being a credible narrator was how I chose to describe the experiences and behaviors of other people with whom I shared experiences. While I described the reactions of others in the moment, I avoided trying to interpret their feelings or imprint mine on them.
Then, there is the act of writing, which everyone will approach differently. I learned that composing in haste and falling in love with the initial draft is unwise, because a memoir can easily turn into a college term paper. Avoiding that may require drawing on materials beyond one’s diaries, journals, and letters. One of my main sources of inspiration was a trove of almost 1,000 Ektachrome slides.
As I perused their fading and mildewed images, Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” rang in my ears; these pictures helped me bring the reader into my world by creating visual reflections of the sights, sounds, and smells of every waking moment of every day in South India. They helped my narrative describe how the surroundings there profoundly influenced my daily life. I remembered the mantra repeated constantly in my memoir writing course: “Your memoir isn’t just about you; it’s also about where you are.”
Finally, constructing the actual story provided its own unique challenges during the writing process. The arc of my story was twofold: how my eyes were opened by the energy, poverty, culture, and rhythm of India; and how that experience inspired a career of service with USAID. There were moments of humor borne of improbable encounters, and moments of anger, frustration, and tearful sadness—all of which came together for a coming-of-age story. It had been the most consequential year of my young adult life. The focus and trajectory changed in subtle, unpredictable ways as the story unfolded, surprising me as I continued to write. I kept asking myself, Will I succeed in telling this story in such a way that the reader will identify with it? Making your personal journey accessible to a reader is the real metric of success. Achieving that objective carries its own surprises, and you will be amazed, as I was, at what people take away from their reading. It may be far different from what you expect.
Of course, there are the publishing and marketing steps to consider. Rarely does a first-time author start with a contract and advance from an established publisher. There are other options for publishing short of that.
In my case, I contacted a friend who had experience with a vanity publisher. A vanity publisher handles editing, publishing, and limited marketing with the author shouldering or, in my case, sharing the cost of these services. At first, my publisher said they weren’t interested in memoirs, and I might not hear back from them for months. I submitted the manuscript anyway, and within a week I received an email saying they wanted to publish it and immediately assigned me a liaison to work with editors, graphics people, and their art department. The editing process took almost eight months. I spent another month with the art department on the cover and back flap before I saw a galley of the final product.
I was on a walk with my neighbor in early February of this year when I pulled up the Amazon website on my phone and saw the book for sale. Further searching revealed that it could be bought on almost any bookseller’s website. When a box of 10 copies arrived on my doorstep from the book distributor a few days later, I could barely control my excitement. The elation I felt holding the printed book in my hands is indescribable.
But as I stared at the cover, I realized I had to figure out how to market the book to reach a broader audience. Keep in mind that vanity publishers do very limited marketing and promotion, which is mostly left up to the author. My publisher provided excellent guidance on how to get started on social media platforms, design a personal website, and leverage other marketing channels such as local press and media. I used all of these, including YouTube.
I soon found that the official press release of my book reached companies that eagerly promised grand sales figures if I purchased their marketing services. Their sales packages often ran into the thousands of dollars with no actual guarantee of sales. I am still figuring out how to push the audience for my book beyond friends, colleagues, and family without getting enmeshed in such expensive schemes. One way is to participate in bookfairs sponsored by a local independent bookstore. Another is to create an account with Publisher’s Weekly or Publishers Marketplace. Both sites provide advice on ways to promote your book.
If I could offer a final bit of advice to anyone contemplating writing a memoir, it is this: It’s difficult, it takes far more time than one expects to do it right, and it’s important to be honest with both oneself and one’s reader. Anyone embarking on this venture should be prepared to encounter new discoveries along the way when mining old memories. Whether you decide, as I did, to publish for a broader audience or limit it to family is a deeply personal decision. If you feel compelled to tell your story, you should.
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