One of a kind

I am calmer today, thanks for asking; my sense of humor shows signs of only being sprained, rather than broken. If certain people want to launch frivolous lawsuits at my memoir because I tell the truth in it about someone who has been dead for 23 years, I have only two options: to make up lies that will please them, or to keep right on telling the truth. I prefer the latter, and I don’t see how I could, in all integrity, do anything else.

I’ll keep you posted on how all of this truth-telling works out for me.

It has made be think, though, about what I have been taught over the years by doubtless well-meaning teachers and writers about how to write the truth. In retrospect, I am honestly struck by how much of the advice was simply not useful at all. There is a great deal I wish I had known, and even more that I wish I had not needed to unlearn before I could finish writing my memoir. (Which WILL see print, I swear. I’m not going to be intimidated by bullies with buckets of money.) So what is the newly-minted memoirist to believe?

Case in point: the advice to write what you know.

We’ve all heard this, right? I assume so, because the result has been an apparently endless stream of short stories about upper middle-class teenagers with angst and very lovable English teachers. It has also — unfortunately for someone like me, who has written about a well-known literary figure survived by unfortunately testy heirs — has led to far too many biopics about writers where the Great One in question lives a life IDENTICAL to the world depicted in his work. So much for creativity: in the biopic universe, the work IS the life.

Personally, I like to give writers a bit more credit for imagination. I prefer to think, for instance, that Dorothy Parker occasionally had a happy love affair, that Ernest Hemingway was something more than a mindless thug fond of killing things, and that John Irving does not actually harbor a pet bear. I could be wrong about all this, of course, but I suspect I am not.

With a memoir, writing what you know seems like basic common sense, right? In a way, yes, but will everybody’s personal story make a good book, even in skillful hands? And is telling the unvarnished truth enough to make a book interesting to people who have never met you?

If you have had an extraordinary life, obviously you have good memoir material, but what about an ordinary life examined with sensitivity and insight? Surely, common experiences would resonate with more people than unusual ones? Think about ANGELA’S ASHES: there were quite a few kids who could have grown up to write similar memoirs, weren’t there?

Again: yes, but — there’s a fine line between speaking to shared experience and reproducing what has been written before. Despite what editors say at writers’ conferences about searching high and low for the next ANGELA’S ASHES, copycat books seldom sell well to the general public. (If you doubt this, take this quick quiz: close your eyes, turn around three times, and now name at least three of the BRIDGET JONES clones’ authors. Could you do it?) To paraphrase Mae West, a copy is forgettable, but the public loves an honest-to-goodness original.

Unfortunately, there are scads and scads of people in the publishing industry who seem to forget this. You may recognize them by their distinctive stripes: they are the agents who snap up a book that sounds like the currently hot thing, show it to one or perhaps two editors — then drop the book flat when it doesn’t sell instantly. They are the editors who will pitch a book to their colleagues as “the next X” (where X = current bestseller), acquire it enthusiastically — then lose interest in them as soon as fashion turns, leaving the poor author high, dry, and without any book promotion budget whatsoever. They are the marketing people who change their minds about what is marketable on a daily basis, and who eschew whimsy. I do not recommend their cultivation, unless you have a skin the approximate thickness of the average bark on a 100-year-old cedar; otherwise, it will only end in tears.

In my opinion, the reading public is actually less fickle than this, bless its collective heart. Once a reader finds a writer she likes, she tends to keep buying that writer’s subsequent books, with an unstinting loyalty rare in this hyper-competitive world. This sterling reader will often even go back and try to find earlier works by a favorite author, the ones that got dropped by a once-enthusiastic press when the time came to ante up for publicity or the ones that did not get stellar advance reviews. Honestly, I do not think authors spend enough time being grateful to readers of this caliber: they are the ones for whom it is genuinely a pleasure to write.

That being said, do bear in mind that this sterling reader probably spends a fair amount of time hanging out in bookstores and/or browsing on Amazon: to catch her eye with a book about a common experience, the writing has to be far above average, and the take has to be unusual.

This attitude, unlike the latest-hot-thing prejudice, expresses itself similarly in the reading public and amongst agents and editors. There’s simply a higher bar for originality for common experiences. At this point, there have been so many books about, say, a Baby Boomer caring for her dying parent(s), (or a 60’s radical simmering down over time, or a high-powered businessman coming to terms with his own mortality and learning in the process that there is more to life than money, or city folks learning the value of country ways, or the loss of anyone’s virginity) that the storytelling must necessarily be stellar to sell the book. By writing on a common subject, unfortunately, the author automatically runs the risk of the agent taking one look at the query, crying to the heavens, “Oh, God, not another book about X!” and hastily shoving it aside unread.

So how do you make your story stand out from the crowd? In my case, I had a built-in advantage: I spent much of my childhood in secret telephone confabs with a brilliant science fiction writer who was afraid to leave his house. That’s not the kind of thing that happens very often , I am told — and that is precisely what I would suggest you look for in your own story: what about you is absolutely unique?

In asking this, I am turning the standard advice on its head. I would advise you to write not just what you know, but what ONLY YOU know. In other words, what is the story that only you can tell?

It doesn’t have to be spectacular, just original and close to home. Think about Marjorie Rawlings’ children’s classic THE YEARLING. A simple, classic story, far removed from the potboilers that were selling well at the time. But these were characters that Rawlings knew and loved down to her bones — and thus, the reader learns to love them, too.

I would suggest that if you want to write a memoir, the people in your life need to spring off the page with all the intensity of fictional characters; if you want to write a novel, its characters need to leap into the reader’s mind with all the solidity of real people. And that will be hard, because you won’t want to step on the toes of the living or the memories of the dead — or, in my case, excite the lawyers of the heirs.

You’re too nice a person for that, right?

Ah, but your responsibility to your future reader demands that you are honest — that you write not the story that your family or your friends or your coworkers or the nearest person with a scary lawyer thinks will make them look good, but the story that only YOU know.

Necessarily, others will disagree with you; that’s the nature of differing points of view. But if you stick with the story you know in your gut to be true, and tell it from the perspective that only you can show, you’re bound to end up with an honest memoir or truthful-feeling novel.

And, unfortunately for the kith and kin of memoirists everywhere, there really isn’t any other way to write a good memoir. Honest, your honor: it just can’t be done any other way.

Keep up the good work, my friends.

– Anne Mini

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