As fans continue to struggle with the death of Friends star Matthew Perry, much attention has centered on Perry’s memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing, published just about exactly one year ago. The book earned generally favorable reviews, and Perry supported it with a series of televised interviews including, most notably, an hour-long conversation with Diane Sawyer on ABC.
Perry’s memoir could be called an “addiction memoir,” a “redemption memoir” or both. Many of you may be writing or hoping to write a similar type of book that chronicles your journey as you overcame an addiction or triumphed over a different life challenge. You may not be asked to do a lot of TV interviews after your memoir is published, but you can follow some of Perry’s writing concepts to make your book a good read.
What can we learn from Matthew Perry’s memoir? Quite a bit:
- Overcoming a huge obstacle makes you want to write a memoir. Beating addiction is necessary in order to live a long and fulfilling life, so you have a lot to celebrate if you’re able to conquer addiction. The natural motivation for many people to chronicle their journey is to help the next addict. In a quote and video clip that’s gone viral since Perry’s death, he tells an interviewer: “The best thing about me, bar none, is if someone comes up to me and says, ‘I can’t stop drinking, can you help me?’ I can say, ‘yes,’ and follow up and do it.” He established a clinic for addicted men, but his memoir also was part of that effort to help people.
- Perhaps even more than most memoir topics, this one requires utter candor. If you don’t want to feel vulnerable, you probably can’t write an addiction memoir. Perry is brutally honest, not concerned with whether he’s giving “Chandler” a bad name or anything like that. For readers to relate to your saga, you have to come across as baring all and hiding nothing.
- Don’t put off writing your memoir. No matter what the topic of your memoir, as soon as the arc of your story is resolved, start writing. You may live much longer than Matthew Perry, who was only 54 when he died. But life goes quickly, and lots of things can get in the way of finding enough time to write a book. While you’re still able to create and the story is fresh in your mind, start writing it. You don’t want to regret letting your life story go untold.
- You don’t have to wait for a final ending. No matter what your redemption story involves, you never really know whether you’ve ultimately succeeded in defeating your demons. If you came out of an abusive situation, you don’t know for sure that you won’t find yourself inadvertently stuck in another abusive relationship. If you’ve recovered from a serious illness such as cancer, you can’t be certain that you won’t have to battle it again someday. And if you’ve overcome addiction, there’s no guarantee that you won’t experience a relapse. Matthew Perry continued to have medical problems related to his previous drug and alcohol use. If you have a redemption story to tell, what you do know is that you landed on the other side of something frightening.
- When you talk about other people, keep the negativity confined to the facts. One big concern for many memoir authors is how much they can divulge about someone else’s bad behavior. As long as you stick to the truth as you remember it, you can write about someone else. Matthew Perry wrote about his childhood marked by his parents’ divorce. It didn’t make his parents look great, but that’s part of the creative freedom an author gets. However, he also made an unfunny, unnecessary and hurtful joke about Keanu Reeves that had nothing to do with the story he was telling. He received so much blowback from this throwaway line that he removed it from the book in subsequent printings. You don’t have to reveal every opinion you have about everyone you mention. You’re better off complimenting people if you choose, rolling out the facts, and letting your description of the action speak for itself rather than specifically trashing the people who make it into your memoir.
- Readers, including friends and family, may be more supportive than you think. Today, addiction doesn’t have the stigma it used to carry. If you feel compelled to tell your story, don’t be afraid to admit what you went through. Don’t feel embarrassed that you stayed with an abusive partner or gave into the temptation of alcohol or drugs. Remember that much of your audience is looking to you for guidance; they’re not out to criticize you. Complete honesty wins over a lot of people.
For many memoir authors, the catharsis gained from writing their story serves as some of the best therapy for getting on with their lives. You want people to know how you faced that challenge and what worked for you to reclaim your own life. Having that book as a reaffirmation that you didn’t back down, didn’t give up, is a reassuring reminder of how strong you are.