Don’t Climb the Cliffs of Insanity Alone if You Want Your Memoir to Survive

Writing a memoir is like climbing a mountain–it’s exciting, adventurous, and often risky. If we do it alone, it can be dangerous and ineffective. By dangerous and ineffective, I mean that if you write a memoir alone, you are unlikely to get it to reach the people you want and you may not even be able to publish it. It will be a terrible book because no one will read it before you get it published. That’s why my mentor Ally Berthiaume doesn’t think one should write a memoir alone.

Ally likes to compare memoir-writing to climbing the Cliffs of Insanity from the movie The Princess Bride. In that movie, a princess named Buttercup is engaged to the country’s prince against her will. In a conspiracy orchestrated by the prince, Buttercup is kidnapped by a man named Vizzini and his misfit friends Inigo (the sword-wielding Spaniard) and Fezzik (a giant from Greenland). At a certain point, the four of them go up a steep rock wall called the Cliffs of Insanity to try to escape to a nearby country. Vizzini puts a harness on Fezzik and Fezzik carries Vizzini on the front, Inigo on one side, and Buttercup on his back up the cliff. Then they realize they’re being followed by a man in black. They assume he’s after the princess for his own gain.

When writing your memoir, you can choose to be like any of these characters. The question is, which of them will you be like? Which approach will you take when writing your memoir?

Buttercup - Passive Princess

You can be like Buttercup, who takes a passive approach and just lets herself be carried up the mountain–probably not the best idea. Passive memoir-writing includes not writing consistently and hoping it writes itself. This passive approach could also mean writing your memoir, getting it published, and then hoping it all works out without promoting it. Or, giving up altogether when things get too hard or no one comes to rescue you.


Inigo - Stuck-in-the-Past Spaniard

You can emulate Inigo, who constantly looks to the past, and remains stuck there, unable to let go. Inigo’s been focused on one thing his whole life, getting back at the five-fingered man who did him wrong. While we can all sympathize with his story and agree that Count Rugen should pay for what he did, a memoir steeped in revenge that is all blame and shame on everyone around you, isn’t going to be a memoir people want to read. Revenge is not the point of a memoir. You have to be able to tell a three-dimensional and objective story. So even if your book is about past wrongs, you have to tell the story with more than just bitterness and spite.

Fezzik - Slow and Steady Giant

Fezzik’s behavior will inspire you to be careful, deliberate, and go at your own pace despite setbacks. Fezzik has a job to do and that’s to keep everyone safe as he makes the ascent up the Cliffs. His aim is to reach the top in the best way he can despite setbacks–mainly Vizzini yelling at him the whole time and the man in black gaining on them. When it comes to you going slow and steady, this means writing as many drafts as you need until you're satisfied with your work. It also means that even if life gets messy, you can still make time to write and make sure you’re satisfied with your work before taking steps to get it published.


The Man in Black - Swift and Confident Climber

Now, if you’re already a strong writer with a lot of self-discipline, and a clear vision of what you want to say, you may identify more with The Man in Black. Knowing your writing style, your story, your motivation, and your plan for getting it done, will help you be efficient on your journey. With this approach, you’ll go at your own pace based on your own capabilities, but also be open to getting support and constructive criticism when needed–like when The Man in Black accepts the help of Inigo when Inigo throws him a rope for the rest of the climb up.

Vizzini - The Whiny Boss

Now, Vizzini thinks he’s a boss. He’s constantly ordering Fezzik and Inigo around, then complaining when they don’t do everything the right way. While it’s important to call the shots along your way and delegate when something isn’t your strength, there’s a certain way to go about this, and a lot of whining and yelling and ordering people around being an a-hole, isn’t it. First, you likely won’t get a lot of attention from writing like this, because people don’t generally like whiny books. Second, good publishing people don’t like working with angry, whiny, bossy jerks.

Choose Wisely or "It Could Take a Miracle"

Ally and I agree that the best strategy for getting your memoir written is to be either like Fezzik or The Man in Black. Only if you take your time, realize what you’re capable of, hold your own feet to the fire, and get the support of the right people will you achieve your goal of writing a memoir. If these things aren’t in place, your book will be “mostly dead” and “it’ll take a miracle” to revive it.

Bottom line: don’t climb the mountain alone. Even if you can get through drafting the manuscript by yourself, you’ll still need editors on the other side. And then at some point you'll need beta readers, a cover designer, a typesetter, and a publisher. Without all these things your memoir will be ineffective–no one will know about it, you won’t know if anyone likes it, and you’ll have trouble publishing it. This is just like climbing a mountain or those Cliffs of Insanity. Without at least one other person, you could likely get lost, stumble, trip, or fall to your death. With the help of someone else there’s the promise that–in the words of Inigo–”you will reach the top alive.”

If you don’t want to climb the mountain alone, reach out and have a 20-minute Story Stroll with Ally. The two of you will have a free conversation to talk about your story and how you don’t want to climb the Cliffs of Insanity alone. And, when you jump on that call, let her know which character you relate to now and which you’d like to be: Buttercup, Fezzik, Inigo, Vizzini, or The Man in Black.

This post was written in collaboration with TWPRT’s summer intern, Miranda Wein. Miranda is a student at Champlain College and an intern at The Write Place, Right Time. She’s interested in writing-related businesses and enjoys her internship.

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