Today, September 22, is the second anniversary of the publication of my memoir, When the Red Gates Opened: A Memoir of China’s Reawakening—about the eight years I spent as a foreign correspondent covering China for Business Week.
Here are five things I’ve learned about writing memoir.
- Don’t reveal too much or too little. This is the delicate balance I felt throughout the six years I spent writing about my experiences as a reporter covering China in the 1980s. As the main character of your own memoir, it’s good to appear realistic, relatable, reflective, humble, honest, human. To avoid puffery, you need to examine your shortcomings and reveal what you learned along the way. Trained as a journalist to keep myself out of the story, I found this tough. After writing agonizing drafts that revealed too much, I made a decision: just don’t hurt anyone. Mine was not a tell-all or a story of abuse; it was a journalist’s memoir. As such, it was the story of my experiences, and I deliberately deleted any parts that affected me but did not directly involve me, any scenes where I was not present. Later, I was glad I decided this. Still a few readers grumbled that I revealed too many personal details. It’s a hard call, a matter of the author’s personal judgement.
- Releasing a book during the pandemic had its advantages. Most writers with 2020 publication dates worried about the closure of bookstores and the sudden loss of in-person events. But by my September 2020 release date, I had quickly adapted to Zoom, as had many organizations that invited speakers. I found it liberating and rewarding to schedule online book talks with local, national, and international groups. Sitting in my own office chair, surrounded by my books, I could talk to folks in New York, D.C., Hong Kong, and Shanghai, as well as Seattle and Bellevue. As an introvert, I loved this. The technology took away my fear but allowed for discussion with participants. Now online talks are an integral part of any book launch, a great opportunity to extend your reach.
- A good memoir can weave history and memories. Because I was a journalist covering the news of the day, the living history of China in the 1980s was a core part of the plotline of my book. How could a Communist country allow capitalism? Could US companies ever make money in China? Could China ever truly modernize? Would the Tiananmen crackdown reverse all the good done under Deng? Some memoirs are purely internal, but outward-facing ones like mine give readers a chance to learn some history they may find intriguing.
- Books do or don’t sell for uncontrollable reasons. Two unexpected factors affected my sales. First, the 1980s are too far back to be present, too recent to be history. Many readers today are fascinated instead with the 1940s, a time they are too young to remember. Maybe the 1980s will be hot like that—someday. Second, I could not have predicted that US-China relations would quickly turn sour. During the Trump presidency, I thought it was a quirk of one leader. But China-bashing has become a bipartisan staple. Most American readers, it seems, don’t want to hear anything positive about China—or to recall how eagerly Americans helped China modernize.
- Audiobooks are an awesome opportunity. Since my publisher, She Writes Press, did not offer audiobook formats, I was able to narrate and produce my own audiobook version, with the help of a voice coach and a sound engineer. By hanging heavy quilts, I repurposed my office into a sound studio for one month. Now that the pandemic is waning, I recommend using a sound studio with an experienced engineer instead, but I sure had fun. I narrated my own story, which allowed me to pronounce Chinese words correctly and use my own inflections. Not everyone has a good voice for audio, but I’ve heard compliments about mine. Readers of memoir like to hear the author’s own voice. The audio version of my memoir now outsells the paperback and e-book versions.
For me, When the Red Gates Opened was the capstone of my careers as both journalist and author. It’s a book only I could write—and one I reflected on for decades before putting fingers to keyboard. As my eighth published book, it’s the pinnacle of my life as a writer. And now I’m taking a break. Well-deserved, I hope. Refreshing.
Happy birthday, Red Gates!