How often have you heard that from people you meet, especially after you’ve told them you’re a writer? It seems to be a common human aspiration. But the truth is, most people will never write that book. Not that there isn’t the raw material there.
My favorite assignment as a newspaper journalist was writing feature stories. I believe there are few people who have led completely uneventful lives. If you look deeply enough and go back far enough, you may find that the sweet little old lady next door was once a feisty WWII female bomber WASP pilot, that your accountant survived a rare, late-stage cancer, or that your jovial local bartender is a former South American drug lord who is now on the lam and living incognito. Many true-life tales can make gripping biographies or autobiographies, given the right slant and the right writer.
I like listening to StoryCorps on NPR. To my ears, almost every one of those segments, though only a few minutes long, is like an oyster with a potential pearl inside. Many of those little vignettes have the ghostly bones of books in them.
You don’t have to be a celebrity for your true life experiences to capture readers’ interest. But you do have to be an engaging, vital, and lyrical storyteller. That’s the real hurdle.
Mastering the written word is an art form, not too different at its core than sculpting or drawing. The medium is different, but the demand for talent remains. You can have the seed of a book in you, but if you don’t have the right gardener (writing and editing skills) to bring it to life and make it bloom, there won’t be anyone admiring your posies.
Sometimes I get the sneaking suspicion that folks claiming they will write a book “someday” assume they can just hammer it out over a long weekend, maybe sandwiched between sorting a load of laundry and watching a baseball game. There’s no real grasp of the time, effort, or skill involved in writing novels. If they actually tried writing any more lines than filled a greeting card, they might would be shocked.
Seems a lot of “tell your life story” websites have popped up over the past few years, most offering some kind of software or electronic service to dump your words or ideas into, and then like a pasta machine, it supposedly cranks out a bestseller on the other end.
Sorry, folks, it doesn’t work that way. If writing and editing was that easy or lucrative, everyone would be doing it. And, just because anyone can write a book and upload it on Amazon, doesn’t mean they should.
I don’t fix my own car, I hire a mechanic. I don’t repair my hail-damaged roof or try to replace a burst water pipe to save a few bucks, I call in licensed contractors. You get the picture.
Even if you’re only telling your life story to entertain future descendants in your family tree, you owe it to them to make it as enjoyable, gripping, and error-free as possible.
If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right.