The Future of the (Autobiographical) Book: Print Is Still Where It’s At

(A continuation of my thoughts on the future of the book)

M. Jane Ross

The web may be the perfect forum for those who write about breaking news and the latest trends and ideas, and some web experts see the future of the book as primarily digital. But for those of us who write about our own lives and the lives of our family, for now print is still the very best means for preserving and sharing a story that is rooted in the past. The physical book will remain the preferred container for longer memoirs, in part for the very fact that a book is not subject to change by its readers. After all, unlike today’s top online trend, the facts of our own story are fixed and certain. Or are they?

Odes to Common Things by Pablo Neruda. Photo credit MJ Ross
Well, yes…and no. The more I learn about the psychology behind lifewriting, the more intrigued I am by the way the very process of writing our memoir changes us and therefore changes our story. In the psychology literature, there is a growing recognition that “psychologically mature” adults are those who have a “coherent narrative of their own lives.” But the reality is that this coherent narrative has to be constructed in an evolving process that can sometimes take decades. As we write, we re-evaluate each memory to see how it fits into the sense we have of the journey of our life and its meaning and purpose. The dates and place names may not change, but our understanding of the events of our life surely can.

The real work of writing our stories and gathering them into a book is not the typing; it’s this psychological work of constructing our coherent narrative and it’s not easy work! We may use the web to bounce ideas off our writing colleagues, but once we have created a narrative that we feel really represents us and our life, we want to put it out into the world in a form that has a sense of permanence and authority. The web is never going to give us that, but a printed book will.

For many SCN writers, the web is the place where we get the sustaining sense of community that allows us to do the hard work of creating our narrative. Many SCN authors who have a memoir in print have also had a web presence that may have grown over the years. Just look at the growing number of SCN memoirists with both a memoir in print and a strong web presence: Susan Tweit (Walking Nature Home), Linda Joy Myers (Don’t Call Me Mother), Linda Wisniewski (Off Kilter), to name just a handful. So the web is integral to what we do. But for most of us, the printed book is the gold standard for its ease of use, its physical durability and the immutability of the print.

It turns out that there has never been a better time for lifewriters to publish our stories as a book despite the economic difficulties of the traditional book publishing industry (and the bricks-and-mortar bookstores, too). We may think of publishing through a traditional book publisher (whether a major publishing house or a small independent publisher) as conveying more authority than self-publishing. But print on demand (PoD) is open to anyone and PoD publishing services like offer memoirists much more creative control over the text than they’d get with a traditional publisher.

So as you think about how you might want to preserve and share the accumulated stories of your own life's narrative, know that creating your own printed book is easily within reach. And at the same time, know that you can use the web to gain the support of your fellow writers and to tell others about your book and to share your process, should you choose to do so.

One response to “The Future of the (Autobiographical) Book: Print Is Still Where It’s At

  1. Jane,
    Thanks for this thoughtful and illuminating post. You clarify beautifuly the strengths of the two media–the internet and the printed book. Isn’t it interesting that the very process of figuring out our life story (as we see it), changes us and our understanding of our lives? I know that has been true for me over the decades I worked at figuring out how to write Walking Nature Home. And now that other people are reading it, I’m finding new facets of the story.
    Thanks, too, for including me in your list of memoirists! I’m honored.

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