Kelly was involved with Mother Teresa and her work for about 16 years, leaving a career as a Sotheby’s auctioneer in Manhattan to work in the slums of Calcutta and elsewhere in the world. “Occasionally, when I was home, I’d do public speaking. People kept telling me I should write these experiences down. I didn’t think of myself as a writer, but I got that message so many times, I thought I better pay attention. So I started writing on my Selectric typewriter. I was pretty naive because I thought I’d write a book and the next week I’d do something else. But in the end, of course, I let the whole apartment go and was doing nothing else.”
Kelly self-published her book, printing 10,000 initial copies, and funding the project by working odd jobs (including a stint as a doorman). Depending predominantly on word of mouth and her own passion, she has since gone into a second printing and sold a total of 15,000 copies.
“Success isn’t measured in how many I’ve sold,” she notes. “It’s measured in the delight I got in producing something really wonderful.”
By contrast, Smith had written eight novels before she decided to address in memoir an experience that, she came to realize, had been haunting her for decades. When she was nine, a friend named Irene was sexually assaulted and strangled in her neighborhood. But since it was the grin-and-bear-it 1950s, no one talked about it. When Smith decided to “take her finger out of the dike” decades later, the memories came flooding back.
“You think that you’ll never remember the details of what happened so long ago,” she explains, “but all you have to do is find a quiet, comfortable place and write one line. That’s when you’ll start to see the whole scene right in front of you. It’s incredible.”
Be forewarned: Some of what comes back may be painful. “Writing memoir is like preparing yourself to go to confession,” says McCourt, who didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until he was 66. “You have to examine your conscience.” And that entails honesty. You can’t write an effective memoir if you’re worried about family and friends looking over your shoulder. Even if the truth hurts, if it is truthful, then there’s no other way to present it. At the very least, readers will recognize the courage in that and respect you for it.
“When you’re truly honest and revealing about yourself, it creates a sigh in other people,” says Lorna Kelly. “They realize they’re not alone, they’re not a freak: Someone else has felt the exact same way or lived their dream. If you’re going to skimp on the truth, then you’re doing a disservice. Honesty is not only a gift to other people—it’s a gift to yourself.”
The other half of successful memoir writing is retrospection. It’s not enough to just chronicle your life as if you were a newspaper reporter. Memoir demands that you write about what you’ve learned from your experiences. For instance, Walls initially wrote about her childhood as a detached observer, and the result, her literary agent told her, was a story that read like it was “wrapped in cellophane.” Only when she assumed the persona of herself as a little girl did it become real and powerful.
In many ways, writing a memoir is like painting. You slap some words on a blank canvas, take a few steps back, look at how they’re coming together, then refine things further. That step back is retrospection. It’s thoughtfulness. It’s an attempt to figure things out. It’s the search for your truth.
“A smart therapist once told me that what I had done in this book was exactly what he tries to get patients to do, and that is confront the truth,” says Walls. “For many years I was running from it, but the truth has a way of catching up with you, and this was my way of coming to terms with it. The things that haunt you, the things that have power over you—once you confront them, they lose their power. So many people ask me, ‘How can you forgive your parents for treating you that way?’ Well, actually, the person I had to forgive was myself. By sitting down and telling what really happened, I was able to understand it for the first time.”