Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
The wide world outside your intimate circle will ask you to do more than become self-aware. Readers will want to identify with the “you” who is fully created upon the page. The memoir is like an open door for readers to walk through and become you…And the reader has expectations. It’s like the difference between cooking for one and cooking for a dinner party. Be generous.
Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
Brenda Peterson & Sarah Jane Freymann
“All writers need to be edited,” says Sarah Jane Freymann, founder and president of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, and co-author with Brenda Peterson of Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir. Freymann offers an important perspective to hopeful authors, adding, “It’s how we learn to ‘see’ our work through our readers’ eyes.”
On a golden, cusp-of-fall afternoon on New York City’s Upper West Side, we are sitting in Freymann’s elegant and comfortable living room deep in conversation.
Freymann has agented and sold books for clients including Julia Child award-winning cookbook author, Aglaia Kremenzi; bestselling nature writer and memoirist Sy Montgomery; journalist, Dick Russell; Pulitzer Prize finalist, Linda Hogan; and Your Life is a Book co-author, novelist and nature writer Bremda Peterson.
“I also wanted to help writers understand the pitching process,” says Freymann. “Because people don’t realize that agents have to pitch each and every author we sign.”
An afternoon meze spreads artfully before us on a low coffee table: apples, nuts, cookies, cheese and a pot of rich, thick, inky-dark coffee. The attention to detail is exemplified in Freymann and Peterson’s meticulously crafted primer on the writing life.
In Your Life is a Book, Peterson and Freymann lay out guidelines for the aspiring memoirist. Yet the book offers something far greater, clear and open perspectives of two accomplished women––an agent who has shepherded hundreds of books into print; and a writer, respected for her memoirs and writing workshops––who generously share the pleasure of creativity and what we can bring forth when we embark on a journey of self-discovery.
As Freymann pours coffee from a French Press, I think of the shelves of “How To” books I’ve collected over the years, hoping for the miraculous book that would help me transform jumbled thoughts into a coherent narrative. I’ve found Your Life is a Book to be one of the best books I’ve read on how to engage in the writing process, specifically the step-by-step process of writing a memoir worthy of an audience.
Wild River Review: First, congratulations to you and Brenda Peterson. There are so many books in the marketplace about writing, many of which I receive and quickly put into recycling. I read your book at night and wanted to get back in bed with it, because you did something rare, you engaged me with your and Brenda’s stories and included writing exercises that don’t feel like exercise at all.
Sarah Jane Freymann: Thank you. Brenda and I want people interested in telling their stories to do it well and with pleasure. As an agent I so often see interesting stories, not badly written, but more simply accounts of an event. We get a laundry list, “I did this…I did that…I did more of this…I did more of that.”
And my feeling is, who cares? I always tell my authors, you need a voice and you need to have a story with larger meaning. And sometimes you need a co-author to help you discover your voice. It just occurred to me today that sometimes your voice becomes more your own when somebody else hears it, than when you are speaking to yourself. When someone hears your voice, they are essentially saying, “I see something coming forth from inside of you.”
WRR: One of my favorite writers, Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce and the memoir, Flyover Lives, gave your book a wonderful review. She called it “a triumph of lucidity.” And said, “It’s the book I wish I’d had on hand when I was writing a memoir, and it’s the book I’ll definitely recommend to anyone planning to write one.” I agree. You not only give lucid writing exercises, but you also share examples of your own pitches as an agent.
Freymann: Pitching a book is ultimately about love. I always say, “Write your book so that someone falls in love with it,” and your proposal excactly the same way. Because the first reaction an editor or an agent wants to have is love, that feeling of falling in love. It’s only then that we look for the intellectual reasons why your proposal or book is a good idea and why we should invest our time in bringing it to publication.
WRR: I read Your Life is a Book the way I might read a good novel or memoir. I’m wondering how you and Brenda Peterson created a seamless voice.
Freymann: I am not a natural writer. I know things and I sometimes know how to say them…I’ve said them so often. It’s thanks to Brenda that the book is as you say, “seamless.” Up until we collaborated, I was Brenda’s agent and she was the professional writer who teaches writing. I don’t teach someone how to write. I can show them what’s wrong with their proposal and correct it and edit it, but actually teaching somebody how to write is not something I try to do.
I recently read a review in the New York Times about a book by Joshua Wolf Schenk called Powers of Two. The reviewer, Sarah Lewis, speaks so movingly and so correctly about the influence of Shenk’s editor, Eamon Dolan on Joshua Schenk`s work. Schenk’s thesis is that “we don’t create anything on our own,” and I truly believe that. You could say this book is an alchemical process shared by Brenda and me.
WRR: One thing I noticed in reading Your Life is a Book, is that I often didn’t know which line belonged to Brenda and which belonged to you.
Freymann: Well, after awhile we didn’t either. There are things attributed to Brenda that I said and things attributed to me that were her words.
WRR: You grew up in London and with a European background, and are now a longtime New York City resident, yet you have a successful collaboration with Brenda, a writer and naturalist who lives in the Pacific Northwest. Do you find that your different perspectives fed your narrative?
Freymann: We certainly bring a wide perspective to our work. One of the reasons we decided to collaborate on this book is because we worked so closely on a memoir Brenda wrote, for which I was the agent. It’s called I want to be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, in which she examines her Southern Baptist roots. In that case, I was very much engaged in the editing process.
WRR: Say an agent falls in love with an author’s writing and concept, and looks at the structure and says, “This is going to need a lot of work.”
Freymann: It happens all the time. But that’s not the way proposals can be submitted today because agents don’t have time to shepherd along the proposal. We are inundated with proposals and it’s gotten harder for agents with email because of the volume of submissions we receive. I try to be as kind as possible and take care with the volume of queries. Every so often a query letter is so badly written that I feel sad and I say to the author, “Look, no agent is going to pick this up. Your query letter is full of spelling mistakes.”
Often people write from another country and they are writing in English and it’s their second language. The bottom line is that everybody needs a second pair of eyes and an editor they trust before they submit a proposal. Even the best writers. Brenda needs editing. I need editing. While we were writing Your Life is a Book, I didn’t send anything to Brenda that I hadn’t had edited.
Your editor can’t be your wife or your best friend, unless your wife and your best friend are somewhat professional. Because they’ll say that they are so amazed that you’re able to write a sentence and they will tell you its great, because they love you. Well, it’s not always great.
WRR: That being said, one of the things in your book that I loved is that you say something important, a memoir does not have to be chronological:
You quote Maxine Hong Kingston in her memoir The Woman Warrior: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said. “What I am about to tell you.”
And go on to say: Then Kingston hears the terrible truth about her aunt’s death in China.
All action is triggered at that moment of secret sharing. The family secret will haunt and define Kingston’s story. It is one scene that explains Kingston’s whole life: it is her true north.”
Freymann: We should think of our memoir as an autobiography that reads like a novel. So if you were presenting a novel to me, maybe you would start at the beginning, but more than likely you would start at the most dramatic wonderful moment of your story. If your birth was truly extraordinary and dramatic, you could start there, but more often it’s not. So, you must take time to think about your reader. Why, when he or she has so many choices, would she want to read your memoir?
WRR: How did you design what I think are some of the best writing exercises I’ve seen?
Freymann: A lot of those are Brenda’s. Some of them are mine. Brenda is a well-respected writing teacher who has spent years refining her workshops, but what inspired me to write this book was a series of workshops I gave specifically on memoir writing that turned into a two-year event, one weekend every month. And I noticed that it changed people’s lives.
Each and every person began to see how extraordinary his or her own life is.
They would fall in love with themselves and they would fall in love with everybody else. Again it’s about love. They fell in love with their own story, seeing it from this perspective with some distance. There’s a wonderful scientist who talks about mindfulness, you become mindful when you’re writing about you’re life. Mindful in a way that you can’t be while you are living through an experience. It’s only after, and when you take time, that you begin to put your life into a larger context.
WRR: Since you’re a successful agent, I would imagine some people would take a workshop with you with the ambition of finding a major publisher. But some people might simply want to tell their story as a legacy. You put it so beautifully in Your Life is a Book: A legacy memoir is something you write for posterity, your family, your adult children, your grandchildren, or maybe just for yourself. It’s not necessarily written to be published, but you are still writing to be read.”
Freymann: Yes, many people want to write a legacy memoir, but no matter what kind of memoir you’re writing, you obviously want people to read it. As I said earlier, if it’s just an account…I did this, I did that, I did this, I did that…your ancestors don’t care. So whatever you’re writing has to be readable, has to speak to those whom you love, has to give them context for their lives, a glimpse, if you will, of their larger history.
But when you want to publish it for a larger universe, there has to be something both personal and universal. Your story must transcend the personal.
WRR: When you or Brenda give workshops, can you see who in the room might have the drive and talent to write a memoir you can sell?
Freymann: Well, sometimes people have already been published and want to write better.
But, like Malcolm Gladwell says, I think talent is also learned, practiced. So practice and talent are opposites of the same coin.
And sometimes you simply need somebody else to discover your voice. And a good writing teacher can help you do just that. But if you don’t put the hours in at your desk, you won’t get better at your craft.
WRR: You and Brenda gave writers and people wishing to tell their stories such a gift with this book and as an agent you took on an additional risk of receiving many more queries.
Freymann: I certainly didn’t write Your Life is a Book because I need more clients, or even want more clients. I did it because I know the material, and because I was so moved by what I saw in the workshop I taught. I fell in love with these participants. In the beginning to me they were just ordinary people. But when they started writing about their lives I realized, no one is ordinary. And I always say that the students think they are falling in love with the teacher when actually they are falling in love with themselves.
What I didn’t take into consideration was how wonderful the students would be, what they would bring to the workshop.
WRR: To go with that, many writers say, “Im going to write a book and I’m going to make a million dollars,” and they may not be aware of the fact that in today’s market, books, especially by new authors, don’t sell themselves. Authors have to find ways to sell their books. It can be a very grueling process. What do you say to an author about how to manage his or her own expectations?
Freymann: When Brenda and I finished writing the book, I went into a kind of tailspin. I thought, Okay, writing the book was the easy part. I now know that it’s what most authors think. “You mean I actually have to publicize and talk about the book?” When we deeply enter the writing process, we create our own universe. And to step outside of it, we have to regain our sense of the world and focus on our audience.
WRR: I understand what you’re saying. When you work closely with another writer, debating how to shape ideas or frame a sentence, you’re in a very circumscribed world.
Freymann: It’s interesting. Throughout this process, except during the time that I sat down to write what I felt was the proposal, my business life has continued so I’m still an agent to my clients. And Brenda sweetly would send me all these writing devices. Little electronic pens, ways to write on the iPad and what did I use? A little dog-eared notebook. I still have it, I would write a note down with a felt pen so I could see what I was writing because very often I couldn’t decipher it. I would write at the gym and stop the treadmill with a sudden thought. So I don’t know that I was in a different world, True, I was in a different world when that happened but it was always compartmentalized.
But you have to remember that I know this material so well. I work with it every day. For me, the book was more a deepening because I was examining the process I have with my clients.
WRR: You have shepherded many successful authors into print. How has your relationship with publishers changed in the digital age; and do you as an agent now have to do more work for your clients?
Freymann: The truth is that the agent’s role has become more valuable. If you don’t have an agent it’s almost impossible to get your book published. Most publishers won’t even look at what you send. And editors move around so much, are let go, don’t have time, although I know some editors who are extraordinary and take the time to edit meticulously.
But before an author sends a project out to a publisher or an agent it has to be spot on. The proposal, the novel, the whatever, has to work or you’re doomed because there’s so much competition that does work. Therein lies the initial working relationship between an author and an agent.
As far as the industry is concerned, we will always need great stories and storytellers. It doesn’t matter what the medium is. What has changed, however, and not necessarily for the better, is that now the authors have so much more responsibility to sell their own book. It used to be that the publisher would arrange a book tour. But it’s rare these days because there aren’t that many book stores. So one has to be innovative in looking for venues.
WRR: And unless you are a celebrity in your field or in a community who knows you, it’s very hard to bring an audience into a bookstore.
Freymann: I agree. Authors need to think about their target market. Brenda and I felt there was a clear niche for our book, that we were giving people who were interested in writing memoir a solid set of tools.
WRR: One reviewer said that Your Life is a Book is also a superb guide for fiction writers. I agree.
Freymann: I believe that the best novels are fed by real life and no matter what you are writing you have to give the reader a good story grounded with fully realized characters. But you also have to trust that you have a voice.
WRR: How do you advise writers to tell their stories truthfully but creatively?
Freymann: I trust the authors whom I choose to represent to give me their truth to the best of their ability. Brenda and I advise writers to trust that your story is extraordinary enough. You don’t have to lie.
Again, this is where craft is important. It doesn’t mean that a skilled writer doesn’t artistically manipulate the truth of their memoir to give the reader a “good story.”
As we say in the book, if you write something happened on a Thursday and it happened on a Tuesday, who cares? Unless it’s the IRS investigating you. Unless it’s September 11th…that should be common sense.
WRR: Another area you and Brenda explore is how to start a story. Many writers collect scenes but have no idea how idea how create a compelling opening.
Freymann: Yes, for many people that’s the hardest part. They can beautifully describe a character, write wonderful dialogue, but with openings that fall into cliché. We advise writers not to start their stories with the weather unless the weather happens to be the moment that Hurricane Sandy struck your house. Or don’t begin a book with a generic description of, say, a woman with green eyes, unless those green eyes are key to the storyline. You would think this would be obvious to a writer. But again, we do not write alone; we often need someone else to help us see where our story can become more interesting.
The writing tips and exercises are designed to help a writer look at their material from a new perspective.
WRR: Many writers start blogs because they believe an agent will find them on the web and their blogs will become books. Have you ever found an author through their blog?
Freymann: At some point I asked the young people who work for me, “Please take a look at the blogs to see what is out there.” They didn’t find anything that they felt was right for our agency. And I simply don’t have the time to look for blogs.
However, if someone writes a query letter and they also have a blog with lots of visitors, I’m impressed because I can see that they’ve built a market. It also gives me a chance to get a feel for their literary voice. But we should remember that part of an agent’s job is to make sure our writers have a market for their books.
WRR: I find it inspiring that as an agent, and now writer of an excellent book, that you are doing what you have encouraged your authors to do: Go on book tour.
Freymann: Well, the interesting thing is I didn’t get involved in that aspect with my authors. I just assumed that they knew what to do, so this is new to me. I thought, “oh my god” and it’s given me a much deeper understanding and compassion for what they have to go through, and for what it takes.
WRR: Now that you’ve written this book has your idea of yourself as a writer changed?
Freymann: Writing this book made me think that I am both a writer and not a writer. Not a writer in the way Brenda is, at least, because things just flow out of her in a writerly way. I have to work at it, but I think it comes more naturally to her. One of the reasons is, I don’t know whether I should admit this, but I didn’t go to college.
WRR: But you are the daughter of a highly educated and cultured family of professionals, so may I ask why not?
Freymann: My father was a Victorian European chauvinist who expected his three daughters to be pretty and to marry well. One day I asked him, “What would you have done if one of us had been really ugly?”
And he said, “ I would have sent you to college.”
WRR: Your father and mother are also Holocaust survivors, having escaped Germany ahead of the Nazis to settle in London. It seems that you might have a memoir in you.
Freymann: That’s possibly true. It’s not so much my memoir as the memoir of a family growing up in an era that no longer exists. Every so often I’m reminded of it. I will watch a TV piece, or hear an NPR piece where someone is being interviewed on the streets of a European city or a North African City and they answer questions intelligently, in English very often; and you know that that person is speaking in a second language and hasn’t even been to school, but they have an education.
WRR: If you were to give one piece of advice to someone with the desire to write his or her memoir, what would it be?
Freymann: Look for the epiphanies in your life. Take the time to find them. We have all had them and they shape our lives in ways that often surprise us. Once you’ve become conscious of your epiphanies, write them down. If you take the time, you will discover the arc of your unique story.
Crafting epiphanies is like building wings for the reader to soar along with you. Think of each scene in a turning-point chapter as building a section of those necessary wings. At the end, you accept fully how the decision, realization, or epiphany was achieved; then, the reader can also take flight.
Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
To learn more about Brenda Peterson, click here.
To learn more about Sarh Jane Freymann, click here.
To order Your Life is a Book, click here.
In 2006, Joy E. Stocke founded Wild River Review with Kimberly Nagy, an outgrowth of the literary magazine, The Bucks County Writer, of which Stocke was Editor in Chief. In 2009, as their editorial practice grew, Stocke and Nagy founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC.
With more than twenty-five years experience as a writer and journalist, Stocke works with many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
In addition, Stocke has shepherded numerous writers into print. She has interviewed Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Muhammud Yunus, Pulitzer Prizewinner Paul Muldoon, Paul Holdengraber, host of LIVE from the NYPL; Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center; anthropologist and expert on end of life care, Mary Catherine Bateson; Ivonne Baki, President of the Andean Parliament; and Templeton Prizewinner Freeman Dyson among others.
In 2006, along with Nagy, Stocke interviewed scientists and artists including former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of Faculty, David P. Dobkin for the documentary Quark Park, chronicling the creation of an award-winning park built on a vacant lot in the heart of Princeton, New Jersey; a park that united art, science and community.
She is president of the Board of Directors at the Cabo Pulmo Learning Center, Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico; and is a member of the Turkish Women’s International Network.
In addition, Stocke has written extensively about her travels in Greece and Turkey. Her memoir, Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses & Saints, based on more than ten years of travel through Turkey, co-written with Angie Brenner was published in March 2012. Her cookbook, Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking will be published in March, 2017 by Quarto Books under the Burgess Lea Press imprint . Stocke and Brenner are currently testing recipes for a companion book, which will feature Anatolian-inspired mezes from around the world.
Stocke’s essay “Turkish American Food” appears in the 2nd edition of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (OUP, 2013). The volume won both International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) for Beverage/Reference/Technical category, 2014; and the Gourmand Award for the Best Food Book of the Year, 2014.
She is the author of a bi-lingual book of poems, Cave of the Bear, translated into Greek by Lili Bita based on her travels in Western Crete, and is currently researching a book about the only hard-finger coral reef in Mexico on the Baja Sur Peninsula. She has been writing about environmental issues there since 2011.
A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a Bachelor of Science in Broadcast Journalism from the Agriculture Journalism School where she also received a minor of Food Science, she participated in the Lindisfarne Symposium on The Evolution of Consciousness with cultural philosopher, poet and historian, William Irwin Thompson. In 2009, she became a Lindisfarne Fellow.
Works by Joy E. Stocke in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
COLUMNS – THE MYSTIC PEN
FOOD & DRINK – ANATOLIAN KITCHEN
FREYMAN & PETERSON- Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir
LITERATURE – BOOK REVIEWS
LITERATURE – ESSAYS
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
The Euphoria of Ignorance: Being Jewish, Becoming Jewish, The Paradox of Being Carlo Ginzburg
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
Paul Holdengraber – The Afterlife of Conversation
2013 – Three Questions: Festival Director Jakab Orsos talks about Art, Bravery, and Sonia Sotomayor
Critical Minds, Social Revolution: Egyptian Activist Nawal El Saadawi
INTERVIEW – Laszlo Jakab Orsos: Written on Water
Tonight We Rest Here: An Interview with Poet Saadi Youssef
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
On the High Line: Diamonds on the Soles of Our Shoes
Car Bombs on the West Side, Journalists Uptown
New York City – Parade of Illuminations: Behind the Scenes with Festival Director Jakab Orsos
The Pen Cabaret 2008: Bowery Ballroom — Featuring..
Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair with Turkey, Land of Dervishes, Goddesses and Saints
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library Composing a Further Life: with Mary Catherine Bateson
WRR@LARGE: From the Editors – UP THE CREEK
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 1
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 2.5
Up the Creek: Volume 1, Number 3.3
Up the Creek: Number 4.4
Up the Creek: Beautiful Solutions
Up the Creek: Blind Faith, July 2009
Up the Creek: Create Dangerously
Up the Creek: What Price Choice?
Up the Creek: Before and After: September 11, 2001
Up the Creek: Candle in a Long Street
Up the Creek: Crossing Cultures: Transcending History
Up the Creek: Man in the Mirror; A Map of the World
Up the Creek: Stories and the Shape of Time
Up the Creek: The Divine Road To Istanbul
Up the Creek: What It Means to Yearn
WRR@LARGE – WILD COVERAGE
UNESCO World Heritage Site Under Threat of Mega-Devlopment Sparks International Protests
The Other Side Of Abu Ghraib — Part One: The Detainees’ Quest For Justice
The Other Side of Abu Ghraib – Part Two: The Yoga Teacher Goes to Istanbul