Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thoughts on Memoirs

This morning I was catching up on my magazine reading when I came across this article in Newsweek.

The article discusses whether or not publishing a memoir is really as therapeutic as we all presume it to be. I don’t represent memoir primarily because I feel I would have very limited interests. I also don’t read a lot of memoirs, not enough to feel I can sell the genre, but one of the things I have always thought about the many memoir queries I receive is that while it might be therapeutic, it’s not always publishable.

What I never really thought about is whether or not the therapy ends once it’s published. I receive a lot of memoirs revolving around the death of a loved one and I always think how therapeutic it must be for people to write those, but once it’s published, once you hear from the people you’re writing about (friends, family members, your kids' teachers) is it still going to be therapeutic? Are you ready to hear their criticisms on your grief or your experience? Are you ready for the anger that’s bound to come from someone who is either not happy with the way you’ve portrayed her or not happy that she wasn’t included? Are you ready to put yourself, your feelings, and your private experience out there for all the world to read?

Food for thought.



Sara said...

Writing as therapy is be a journal. Writing a memoir is like writing fiction: you're telling a story. Our characters (real or made up), have watched someone die or been diagnosed with cancer or left a marriage. I don't want to read someone's therapy; I want to read their unique telling of a common story.

Kristan said...

I think Nova Scotia Country Girl's point is well-made.

And I think people who write and publish memoir are extremely brave, for exactly the reasons you're raising with your questions. In college I took a couple creative non-fic courses as part of my degree, and getting that work critiqued was definitely harder than anything else.

Anonymous said...

The memoirs that I have had accepted for publication, over thirty essays/short format; have always been honest, very personal and general regarding subject. If the reader cannot identify, it doesn’t work. There is always fallout.
The sad, horrific and unimaginable, how do we identify with that? By realizing admiration for the writer’s bravery and that in many instances, it can always happen to you. Reading someone else’s memoir can change your life.

Anonymous said...

Talk about timing -- I just finished reading Julie Powell's book, "Cleaving" in which she details her two year affair (she and her husband are still married) juxtaposed against her learning the skill of butchering.

Oddly, it wasn't a revenge book but one where the author just freely admits to everything she's done, though she's got no real reason for doing it.It felt like reading someone's diary.

Are people this desperate for a book deal that they'll sell out their lives like this? I think memoirs can remind us all of our humanity, and frailty as people moving through life, but the tell-all without a *higher point* of wisdom gleaned and demons overcome are pointless.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

Interesting. It could be a variant on the kind of "magical thinking" that leads aspiring writers to think that once they're published, they'll be jetting from signing to signing, getting recognized by strangers, etc. In this case, there's the complicating factor of therapy--that I think my memoir will not only make me famous and successful and happy, but it will also banish any lingering trauma from my story.

I think the best memoirs are generous--not writing because of oneself, but because of the way one's own story can reach out to others. Kind of related to a quote I saw the other day, a good memoir says "look!":

"I truly believe that one of the most wonderful and reverent things you can say to another human being is 'look!'"--Kathleen Dean Moore

Anonymous said...

Anon, it's not sell out it's believing that what you have to say has worth. For some the value is $, for others it is survival.

Carin Siegfried said...

I read Comfort by Ann Hood a few months ago, and there's a note she's included in the paperback version talking about how she did find comfort in the letters people wrote her after the hardcover was published. It made her feel less alone, and also less like her feelings and emotions were crazy, to know so many other people had had similar experiences and come through it. An exquisite book.

steeleweed said...

I've only read a couple of memoirs, both by an aunt (she had second thoughts? Forgot something the first time around?). Both were originally meant for family & friends but they did interest many others simply because her life was a slice of Americana which is vanishing.
She was born in 1898, taught school at 16, spent next 75 years running a cattle ranch, met lots of interesting folks, had many interesting experiences.
In the next year or so I plan on republishing these memoirs. They won't sell significantly but they will sell forever Out West.

Bethany C Morrow said...

I don't write memoir, nor shall I - but you make a strong argument. If it's therapy, how are you going to feel about the onslaught of opinions, criticisms, etc. Never thought about that.

John Baron said...

I don't read memoir, but I sometimes wonder why. I don't write memoir and I never wonder why not. More power to those who write it, but as you say, they'd better go in with their eyes open, therapy or no. Strong writing comes from deep inside, and the deeper you reach for it the greater the danger -- danger that you'll hurt someone you love, danger that you'll expose yourself for the mean person you sometimes really are, danger that no one else will find it readable, danger that no one else will care. I can write compelling fiction without risking the things that I hold dear, and that's good enough for me.

Sarah R said...

I think that memoir writing, unless you are a person with a unique and fantastic point of view or story to tell, has to just be therapy. I know a lot of writers who get offended when someone critiques fiction, which, while it is personal, is nowhere near as personal as a a memoir. That's opening up a vein and letting your innards and blood pour onto the page.

So unless you're a washed up child-actor or someone who's climbed Mt. Everest three times, I'm not really interested in your memoir.

Mira said...

Interesting discussion.

I think that your point that writers need to be aware of the possible consequences of writing a memoir is well-spoken, Jessica.

My thoughts - I think going through an extremely painful experience - the loss of a child, for example - memoir is therapeutic, yes, but also transformative.

People are trying to make sense of the senseless, and the process of expressing this through art changes people in the way that facing great pain will - it deepens you, softens you, strengthens you - it strengthens your heart. Pain, at that level purifies.

That's what art is. Well, one thing that it is. A vehicle for purification through self-expression.

One way to transform great pain is to try to give meaning to it, by helping other people who are facing the same thing. Writing memoir can be an act of compassion and connection. It can be a legacy.

But I'll take it further. I think everything we write is memoir - non-fiction, fiction, everything. It's all an attempt to communicate what is inside us, and how we see things to other human beings.

Um. I hope this didn't get too out there - but this is a topic close to my heart. :)

Thanks for the discussion, Jessica!

Elena DeRosa said...

I pretty much just read biographies and memoirs as I find most fiction either dull or too contrived. I also find memoirs by "regular folks" usually way more interesting than celebrities because I can relate to their story, or learn something from it while being entertained. Although it can be, I don't think memoir writing is necessarily therapy for every writer, but it's definitely only for those who not only have a story that needs to be told, but those that have thick skin and stamina.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post & thanks for linking to that Newsweek article.

I write a relatively memoir-esque blog, and some of the comments have been really hard to take. That has been a learning experience.
But just as many, and maybe more, have been supportive. In that sense, it has been rewarding.

And I did start the blog to say "look!" and partly because of the interest in it, I am writing a memoir, although I'll admit that it's much easier to write personal things from behind the safety of a pseudonym.

These points about whether it will be therapeutic or not are well taken. But I do want to embarrass a lot of people who richly deserve it. I want it to be as much of an exposé of the industry as the story of my personal journey.

FWIW, all the memoirs I've read have been by people who wrote about their careers (mostly writers, feminists and Nobel prize-winning scientists) or how they dealt with life-changing disease (Evan Handler and Michael J. Fox have been very inspiring to me). I'm not interested in memoir about marriage or divorce. Maybe that means I have a warped idea about what memoir is and why people read it.

Some days writing about these things is therapeutic. Other days it's really hard to dig old stuff up, and I dread it. But I never thought I could write fiction, and I've heard that for many writers, it's easier to start with memoir first. As if you have to get that over with and out of your system. Maybe I will write the whole thing and decide not to publish it until everyone in it is dead.

They should be so lucky.

Anonymous said...

I thought I was writing a humorous and inspiring memoir... All the points you made in this post were what clarified how I wanted to present the story.

It's "done" and has been read by friends who are published novelists. The opinion is, humor-yes, inspiring-yes, memoir-no.

I'm working with these friends on how to market this nonfiction book. Knowing what I've written, I will welcome critiques of what others think I learned from my parents delightful romance.

I don't read memoir. Instead, I read Erma Bombeck and Jane Porter as models for my style and voice.

Kristin Laughtin said...

That's always been my thought, too. I'm sure writing memoirs is therapeutic. The only times I've written anything close to that genre, it's been for my eyes only, and the writing did indeed help me sort out my emotions. But I can't imagine publishing it would be therapeutic, unless your goal in writing it was to expose or vilify someone else to the world (in which case, you might be writing more of an expose). You then have to deal with people criticizing your feelings and possibly dissecting your actions--and somebody out there will.

Heather Marsten said...

Hmmm, The first time I wrote my memoir it was therapy. I bled out all over those pages the hurt and pain that I received as a child. It helped me to remember things and I learned a lot. I actually got personal rejections from agents telling me that the market was filled with similar memoirs and mine needed a little work. Knowing what I know now, It needed LOTS of work, but the agents were kind and they must have cringed at the pain in the manuscript. I think I will be rewriting a memoir, but as a healed person. The focus will be different - a journey of healing not a litany of pain. It is helpful to read other's stories and learn how they faced their challenges, for it gives courage when you are in the midst of the journey.

Anonymous said...

This is going to stir the pot, I know. I'm sorry if I offend but it IS what I've consistently seen in my writing circles.

My biggest beef with memoirs is not so much that they are or are not therapeutic to the writer, but that they require the writer to submerge themselves into their (usually painful) past experiences, forcing them to relive things over and over, day after day, rewrite after rewrite. This much focus on that much pain doesn't SEEM healthy (not diagnosing or passing judgement, just saying what I feel), either for the writer or for those that the writer lives/interacts with. Does the writer ever move past the experience this way or is the writing of a memoir simply "justification" for being his or her own favorite commiserator?

And you're right about the stuff that follows. If upon completion of the memoir, the writer hasn't fully "therapied" themselves past the issue, accepting even the gentlest of critiques is gut-wrenching and meets with so much resistance! I think that's why we see so many memoirs self-published or POD.

Nova Scotia makes a great point and I'll embellish it a little - turn a memoir into fiction so that the writer can remove him-or herself from it. That way the critiques and comments are about THE character rather than the writer's character.

For those who are writing memoirs, I DO wish you the best and encourage you to step back often so that you don't become so submerged in the past that you forget to live in the NOW. NOW is an awesome place in which to be living.

Becky D

Puffy said...

I find it hard enough to be honest telling a fictional story. I can't imagine how much harder it would be to tell the story of my life.

I didn't start reading memoirs until my internship. A surprising number of them are well-written, but not compelling or memorable - sometimes the memoirs are over-sentimental, dishonest, or even worse, revenge fantasies. I have only come across one memoir worth publishing, and there is no deep philosophy attached, strong overarching theme, or witty writing. Her life is just really damn interesting and she's so heart-felt that you can't shut her down once you start listening to what she has to say. This kind of bravery and diligence frightens me.

Deborah Niemann said...

The article is about celebrity women complaining about their cheating husbands and how that has evolved, so it really doesn't apply to the other 99.9% of us. The reason those books sold (and for big bucks!) was based completely on name recognition of the characters.

As someone who has been trying to sell a memoir, I'm really tired of hearing agents say that it's a great story, but they're afraid it won't sell (based solely on the query) because no one knows who I am. Yet they have not seen my bio or marketing proposal, which details my ability and plan to sell the book. I have more speaking engagements than a lot of published authors (9 this month alone, including one in Chicago with 250 people). I have more blog readers (1,500) and Facebook friends/fans (500/300) than a lot of published authors in the areas of sustainability, gardening, and other "green" topics. I host published authors on my blog to help them promote their books, which have been published by big NYC houses. When I speak, people are always asking me if I have a book.

The memoir is not therapeutic or depressing. I've been a published writer in magazines and newspapers for 20+ years and learned a long time ago that your editor is not your shrink. The story is inspiring and funny and occasionally sad, like real life. It's about our life after we moved to 32 acres in the middle of nowhere to grow our own food organically and live a more sustainable life. I know plenty of people think I'm nuts, but even more tell me that I'm an inspiration after reading my blog, visiting my website, or seeing me speak. But there's not an agent anywhere that knows that because they keep rejecting the query without seeing the 30-page proposal!

Buffra said...

Is memoir queried the same way fiction is queried? Or is it more like nonfiction? Or does it depend on the topic of the memoir?