Interview with Sari Botton, Memoirist & Editor

Sari Botton is the author of the memoir in essays, And You May Find Yourself…Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo. She is a contributing editor and columnist at Catapult, and the former Essays Editor for Longreads. She is the Writer in Residence in the creative writing department of SUNY New Paltz for Spring, 2023.

The well-known memoirist shares her insights on writing memoir with Viney Kirpal, a health and personal essay writer.

Viney:  Hi Sari. What’s your memoir about? I mean it’s not just the story. The title intrigues and you have also designed the cover page. What were you trying to communicate?

Sari: My memoir-in-essays, And You May Find Yourself: Confessions of a Late-Blooming Gen-X Weirdo, is a mid-life coming-of-age memoir, about finding my way later in life after many years alternating between trying to conform and be like everyone else, and trying to be the real me, even if I didn’t quite fit in. Publishing it and getting feedback from readers of all genders, ages, and backgrounds tells me that just about everyone feels like a weirdo, everyone feels like they are different in ways from others around them. And that many people feel out of step with their peers, as I always have. I’ve always been alternately precocious and immature, in various areas of my life. An over-arching theme is learning to be true to yourself and accept yourself, no matter how odd you feel in comparison to those around you.

Viney:  This exploration would’ve taken a while to write. How long did it take you to write the book- length memoir? Did you, at times feel you should abandon it? How did you cope with the feeling?

Sari: I’d been working on pieces of the book for decades, but was afraid of really putting myself out there, and afraid of hurting people, so it was something I just worked on in the background for a long time. But then in 2019, at 54, I realized time could be running out. Both of my grandmothers died in their 50s, and who ever knows how long they have? So I put together a book proposal and then got a book deal in 2020. I then worked on the book for about a year, revising older pieces and creating many new ones. It was supposed to be published in June, 2021, but I felt as if I wanted to put it through another round of revisions. My editor was very understanding, and we published it in June, 2022. The whole time I was working on it, during a global pandemic and civil unrest, I debated whether I should continue. I worried that people wouldn’t care about what I had to say about my life, especially when there were so many huge tragedies going on in the world. I had to recommit to it every day. Sometimes in the middle of the night I had to give myself permission to quit. The next morning, I’d decide to keep going. It was difficult to maintain my courage, but I’m glad I did. Many people have written to tell me how much the book resonates with them, even if they’re not women in their 50s, like me.

Viney:  Is there a particular structure that you used, and which could help new writers pen a good memoir?

Sari: A nice thing that is happening these days is that many different memoir structures are considered valid. I chose what I call an episodic structure, rather than a straight narrative. We are seeing lots of memoirs written in fragments now, like Abigail Thomas’s Still Life at Eight: The Next Interesting Thing, and Maggie Smith’s forthcoming memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful. There are also now lots of great graphic memoirs, which are illustrated. Alison Bechdel was one of the innovators of that with Fun Home and Are You My Mother. Then there are memoirs that incorporate bits of speculative fiction, like Michelle Tea’s Black Wave. There are so many more structure and tone options than ever before, and it’s great. I think memoirists should choose the structure that most appeals to them—what they enjoy reading.

Viney: Writing a memoir is more than the structure, isn’t it? I mean you put your whole life into it. What special four tips would you like to give writers about writing a memoir that resonates?

Sari:  Here they are:

  1. Give yourself plenty of time to work on your book, because writing memoir is challenging emotionally, and you’ll need time for different drafts that have different purposes, and also to manage the various emotions that come up. One of the most important drafts is what I call the “warts-and-all vomit draft,” the early, early draft you know you are not going to publish, but which contains all the difficult stories and emotions in exquisite detail. You need this draft to tell yourself the story before you tell it to anyone else, but also to get out of your head and your body all the painful experiences and feelings, most of which you can’t get perspective on until you finish this draft, put it way for a few weeks, and then come back to it.
  2. One of the challenges of writing memoir is that it’s often difficult to do without writing about other people. The stories of our lives happen with other people in them. But other people don’t always want to be in our books, especially if what you’re writing about them isn’t flattering. In later drafts, consider blurring the identities of people who might not like to appear in your memoir. Change their identifying characteristics. Remove any inflammatory details that aren’t necessary for the reader to understand what happened.
  3. Before publication, with enough time to make changes, share the material with people who are mentioned in the book, who you care about. Even if what you have to say about someone is flattering, they still might want their identity blurred. Who knows, maybe they don’t want their family to know that they went on that trip to Las Vegas with you. Ask them if they want you to change their name and other identifying characteristics.
  4. When you get to a final or near-final draft, share it with some trusted readers for feedback. That said, take what they say with a grain of salt. Learn how to figure out which feedback resonates with your taste and style and intentions, and which does not. You can only do this via trial and error. It helps to be part of a trust writers’ group, especially early on in your career. When you get in the habit of receiving feedback often, you learn to discern which feedback is most useful to you and which you can disregard.

Viney:  This is really helpful stuff. Given your long experience, what else would you like to tell aspiring writers about personal writing?

Sari: Prepare yourself for the emotional fallout, internally and from people in your life, when your work is published. Sharing stories from your life can bring up all kinds of emotions. If your stories are about traumas you’ve endured, writing about them can be emotionally triggering to you and the other people involved. Therapy can be helpful, as can talking with other writers of memoir. Writers’ groups can function as support groups in this way. Expect to have a broad range of emotions when you’re writing, and then when your work is published. And make room for whatever kind of self-care might ease you through that.

Viney: This was superb! Sari, it’s been a pleasure to hear your insights on writing Memoir. Thank you for joining us on FWW and giving us your time. Sari can be found on Twitter @saribotton.



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