Memoirs of Overcoming Adversity

Dear Rachelle,

I’ve heard you talk about how difficult it is to sell a “personal story of overcoming adversity.” You’ve mentioned you won’t consider this kind of memoir unless the author has a significant platform and the story has built-in marketing potential and an obvious media hook. Would this include being a cancer survivor (two completely separate cancers) at age 45? While there are a lot of survivor books in the market, I have not found many with a Christian perspective.

Just wondering…
A Survivor


Dear Survivor,

Congratulations on beating cancer not once, but twice. What an amazing story you must have.

I’m sad to say that your story is exactly what I’m talking about when I specified a personal story of overcoming adversity. I have no doubt your story is inspirational, God-glorifying, and amazing. And obviously, it’s something that defines your life. So it’s difficult for me to reduce this to a business decision, but in the end, that’s what it is.

As I’m sure you know, at any given time there are over 5 million Americans living with cancer. Every one of them is living an incredible story, so this is not to reduce the importance of yours, only to say that many people choose to write their survival stories in book form, and only a tiny fraction will be published. Many of those are Christians, and there have been quite a few survivor-memoirs with the Christian worldview. So unless you’re already famous in some way, or your story has some kind of angle that readers will see as unique or incredible, and your memoir is absolutely beautiful and amazing it the writing, the chances of publication are slim. Most bestselling memoirs of the personal-adversity type either give the topic a humorous spin, are authored by a celebrity, or are written in such a way that readers find compelling in a “can’t put it down” way.

Selling a memoir is also easier if you’ve established a platform. Has there been significant media coverage of your story? Are you out on the speaking circuit sharing your story with others? Do you have 1,000 hits a day on your blog? These are the kinds of things that can help.

When I mention “platform” and “media hook” as applied to memoirs, I’m referring to stories like Bethany Hamilton’s, the girl whose story of overcoming adversity had media attention from the beginning and later became the book and movie Soul Surfer. Or the story of Aron Ralston, whose “personal story of overcoming adversity” also had huge media attention from the very beginning and later became the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place and the movie “127 Hours.”

There have been some recent notable cancer memoirs, such as Kelly Corrigan’s The Middle Place, and you may wonder how they managed to get published. Most, like Kelly, are far-above-average writers and had a significant platform prior to publication. (Kelly was already a professional writer in addition to running a large non-profit website for family and friends of women with cancer.)

If you’ve got a platform and you’ve studied the craft of memoir and you believe you’ve got what it takes, by all means send out your query. If you end up unable to find an agent or publisher, then I suggest telling your story through blogging or self-publishing.

I wish I had better news for you!

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. P Jackson on May 29, 2015 at 9:08 PM

    Your honesty is appreciated!

  2. MAC Makeup on April 8, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    Thtank you for share!

  3. K. Garvin on January 9, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    Thank you, Rachelle. Your post gives me hope and confidence that my book will be published as soon as I find the right agent (or they find me). I recently added a layer to my memoirs, the fact that the time of my life that I wrote about took place in a town most people are curious about…I grew up in Littleton Colorado and was at Deer Creek in 1982, the day a fellow student was murdered, and attended Columbine with another student who happened to go on a murderous crime spree in 1989. I wonder if I am being true to my story by writing about all of this, but decided that since it is true and I was there, and it impacted my character then I’m not commercializing in order to get this non-fiction story told.

  4. Hi-Def DVD Players For Sale on October 11, 2011 at 1:11 PM

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  5. Pamela Koefoed on July 16, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    I’m in the midst of writing a memoir emphasizing the transforming power of the Lord. In the process, I’ve come to understand that the Lord is greatly concerned with the heart and well-being of the writer. On this writing journey, I’m finding memory to be a gift and memoir writing a door of healing. As I wait on the Lord for clarity concerning a particular moment in my life, He often comes in, throws open the curtains, and lifts up the window in my soul. Light floods that place where memories are stored and I can see what was hidden—a need for a little more healing, for His touch, and to hear His voice. He speaks to me in those times and I’m discovering something else, His timeless love. It reaches clear back to when I was an infant without a father, and then again when my grandmother took her own life, and then again when I was abandoned, and again, and again, and it reaches into the present where I am today. I hope that other memoir writers will discover this wonderful door to healing that I’ve found which has led me to knowing Christ more deeply and becoming whole.

  6. mommas2cents on May 26, 2011 at 10:08 PM

    >Wow, I've never blogged. I guess it's time to start 🙂

  7. gillian on May 24, 2011 at 9:09 PM

    >Helpful post, thanks! Of course, I am half way through a memoir rewrite. Awesome. I've heard a lot about the need for platform and am working deligently to line up speaking gigs and to get myself out there in the social media. That part isn't fun, but I am enjoying the process of writing the book. I appreciate the honesty on your blog and look forward to learning more!

  8. Stacy S. Jensen on May 24, 2011 at 5:24 PM

    >I think outlets for personal essays are great to share stories.

  9. Sarah on May 24, 2011 at 4:48 PM

    >These were great thoughts – and very helpful. I think I'll just keep my memoirs for my kids to read someday! 🙂

  10. Dean K Miller on May 23, 2011 at 10:16 PM

    >Many good comments and a great post filled with honesty and integrity. Remember, just because your story may not be "sellable" to an agnet/editor, doesn't mean your story shouldn't be told. Lots of good direction given here.

    Writing for money can bring positives, but writing for self can hold more value. The choice is up to each one of us.

  11. Diane Fordham on May 23, 2011 at 10:07 PM

    >Very interesting post – eye-opening in fact! I enjoy this blog and the way you tell it how it is! Thank you!

  12. Marla Taviano on May 23, 2011 at 9:59 PM

    >I get similar e-mails (and in-person comments) from people all the time. I always send them to your blog, but now I'll point them to this post in particular.

  13. on May 23, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    >back to needing a platform and cancer isn't necessarily what we can stand on.

  14. Krista Phillips on May 23, 2011 at 5:56 PM

    >I've had SO many people come to me and recommend I "write a book" about my experiences with my daughter. But for the very reasons you pointed out, I'm not totally convinced.

    I guess if I DO write the book, I want it to be less of a "look at me" book and more a "look at GOD" book, and to help encourage others. And I'd want it to be unique and funny…

    Plus, my heart is in fiction… *sigh* I'm still debating… obviously:-)

    One in every 100 babies are born with a heart defect… so I'm not THAT unique (although she's been in the hospital for 307 days… and underwent heart transplant, so that is a LITTLE more unique I guess!) And my blog IS getting a lot more hits these days (a year ago I got about 600 a month… I now average >700 most days… NOT the way I would have picked to add blog readers though!)

    But I also have a very special needs baby to take care of… I don't see me hitting a speaking circuit anytime soon!

    I guess it's hard to know for sure if it's something that people just "assume" I should write about… or if it's God pushing me to do it and I'm just being too chicken.

  15. j.d. oliver on May 23, 2011 at 4:39 PM

    >I'd agree with others who point out that our personal stories of adversity can be mined for excellent fiction material! The challenge then of course is to create some distance between yourself and the story you create from your experiences so that the writing is fresh, surprising, and doesn't get slowed down by our tendency to wallow in autobiographical "purple patches".

    I'm often surprised when I go through my writing to find snippets of my life and the people I know (characters, habits, even bits of conversation and every day objects) sprinkled throughout my work unintentionally. It's that subtle, but I find that these little real-life details bring my writing to life when combined with the greater piece, which is totally imaginary.

    If you've got a great story to tell and don't mind telling it without drawing attention to yourself, turn it into a great fiction story–just don't be afraid to let your imagination run wild and transform it into something brand new, or else the work will be stilted and suffer.

  16. BW on May 23, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    >If anyone is looking for a good book by a Christian cancer survivor, I recommend "God Never Blinks" by Regina Brett. She's a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and formerly for the Akron Beacon Journal (my daily paper).

    She did her memiors as 50 life lessons.

  17. Linda K. Wertheimer on May 23, 2011 at 3:36 PM

    What an honest post. Thank you for being so candid and saying something so few memoir writers like to hear – but should.

    I have read beautiful memoirs about overcoming adversity. What sticks out to me is rarely the situation. It is the writing and the universal message the writer delivers while telling an intensely personal story. One of the most beautiful – and unusual – memoirs I read recently was Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index.

    I, meanwhile, beg to differ with @clindsay that surviving the death of someone is not good fodder for a memoir. It depends on the writer. It depends on the story behind that survival. Memoirs about loss have been written for centuries, and I hope they will continue to be written and published.

    Death, grief, dying, unfortunately are a part of life, and mourners often look to the book stacks for solace. Hopefully, writers will keep coming up with different and fascinating ways to explore loss.

    Rachelle, thank you again for opening up this discussion.


  18. clindsay on May 23, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    >A good memoir is not the story of your life or the story of the tragedy in your life but rather a quirky snapshop of a particular moment in your life, told in a unique way.

    When I was an agent, the most common memoir queries I got fell into two categories: 1.) I survived [insert major medical trauma or illness here]2.) I survived the death of a spouse/child/lover/parent. I received literally hundreds of these a month.

    While writing about such events may be cathartic for a writer, they aren't really good fodder for a memoir.

  19. Timothy Fish on May 23, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    >I think it’s safe to say that overcoming adversity is one of the most ordinary things of life. We all face adversity and we all have overcome adversity. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here. Everyone has a story of overcoming adversity. The thing that makes it worth writing in a book is that other people are confident that it will help them as they face their own brand of adversity.

  20. Sara Grambusch on May 23, 2011 at 12:33 PM

    >Great, helpful honest post. Memoirs, just like any other genre, need a new angle to stand out. This week has been full of "bad news" here, but we still love you! 🙂

  21. Sharon A. Lavy on May 23, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    >Our experiences can always be used in fiction.

    I have a character waiting in the background who was in a cult, I'd say a minor one, but then when I was in it I didn't believe it was a cult at all. In fact I was back in the church of my youth for a couple of years before I could recognize the cultishness of where I was for 12 years.

  22. Kelly Combs on May 23, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    >I've had numerous people tell me I should write a book about my life (raised by a mentally ill, alcoholic mother). And while it is truly a story of overcoming adversity, I am thankful that my platform is small, because my life is now sweet, simple and free of "media attention." Praise the Lord!

  23. Jaime Wright on May 23, 2011 at 11:10 AM

    >I love the blog idea – I've found SO much encouragment as a reader by following bloggers who have a personal struggle/situation similar to mine, that they're willing to share. It's a HUGE ministry in and of itself.

  24. Joanne Sher on May 23, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    >Now I'm wondering if my book -which I'm fairly certain is NOT a memoir – but has "memoirish" tendencies, fits this category. Suppose I may find out (from you) in the near future.

  25. Joy N. on May 23, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    >Interesting! Thanks for a post directed just to memoirs!!

    If a memoir has an "overcoming adversity" side to it, but could also have a different angle, would it be better, then, to put the emphasis on the other part of the story?

  26. Neurotic Workaholic on May 23, 2011 at 9:33 AM

    >This is all really helpful advice, especially the part about successful memoirs with a humorous spin. I have more memoirs in my bookcase than any other genre, and the funny ones are the ones I like best. I do like inspiring stories, but somehow the stories are even more inspiring if they can make me laugh; that shows me that the author still has a sense of humor despite (or maybe because of) everything he/she experienced.

  27. Jeanne T on May 23, 2011 at 9:28 AM

    >Rachelle, I appreciated this post. I have heard much about writing memoirs of late. In my mind, it seems prudent to consider the motivation for writing one. I think if I was ever to write one, it would be more for sharing memories and, perhaps a legacy, with my children.

    I know, though, that there are inspiring stories out there. Mine just wouldn't be for people beyond my sphere of influence. Thanks for sharing your realistic insights about publishing memoirs.

  28. Rachelle on May 23, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    >Good one, Jordan. Basically, yes. 🙂

  29. Jordan McCollum on May 23, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    >Interesting examples. So basically getting your memoir published will cost you an arm?