I have been thinking again today about those of us who write about true events — and yes, alas, my publisher is still being sued over my memoir — and I want to speak about a topic that is discussed only very rarely amongst memoirists, and that in hushed tones and only amongst ourselves. It is, successful memoirists assert behind closed doors, extremely difficult to expose your own cherished notions of yourself and your past to outside scrutiny.
If you are brave enough to want to share your life story with the world, do keep in mind that you will be tying up your most cherished and hated memories with a nice red ribbon — and handing it to people whose life’s work is pointing out logical holes in stories. I’m not talking about predatory lawyers here, or even reviewers, but agents and editors.
Be prepared to answer questions from your agent and editor that most therapists would blush to ask. Do try to keep a sense of humor about it, because after all, you are the person who invited the scrutiny. (And do remember, as I did not, that you are under no obligation to show your manuscript to your kith and kin. As the lawyers say, it’s always better to ask forgiveness than permission. How I wish now that I had followed my own advice in this respect!)
The first serious barrage of ultra-personal questions about my memoir, A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK caught me totally by surprise, even after a lifetime listening to would-be biographers interview my mother about her glory days. When I first began shopping the book around, a good half of the publishing professionals I spoke to asked the same first question: was this book about a love affair that ended when I was 15?
Oh, please. As if no young woman ever had anything interesting to say that didn’t have something to do with sex.
If I had been a savvier marketer back then, I suppose I would have answered, “You’ll have to read the book and see,” but it’s pretty difficult to treat the story of your own life like a commodity. It’s hard not to take the prurient questions personally. They probably were not actually asking, “Were you a teenage slut?” but that’s certainly how I heard it.
Yet once you have written a memoir, your telling of your life IS a commodity. Like any other salesman with any other product, your agent has to understand it well enough (or repackage it well enough) to be able to sell it to editors. And your editor has to be able to sell his or her vision of it to his publisher, and the publishing house’s marketers to the world.
This may be self-evident logically, but emotionally, it is anything but. You learn a lot about yourself, and about how others see you. For a memoirist, the process of bringing out reminiscences is roughly akin to conducting a year’s worth of therapy by shouting deep, dark secrets across a crowded opera house to a hard-of-hearing therapist seated on the far side. His questions and your answers are essentially public — as is your story, the instant you start to market it. And, given the peculiarities of the NF market, perhaps even before you have written it.
There are easier things to do.
And you unquestionably have a higher chance of maintaining plausible deniability if you write your life as fiction. But some of us have led lives too wacky to make for realistic fiction. Just because something actually happened doesn’t mean it is believable on the pages of a novel.
Let me repeat that, because it’s the single biggest problem the memoir-writer faces: just because something happened doesn’t mean it is plausible. It is the memoirist’s job to make the improbabilities of life credible, by creating rich characters and compelling story arcs out of the materials real life has given him. A memoir is not a transcript of everyday life, because that would be unreadable — a good memoir is real life illuminated by an insightful eye and a heart not afraid to reveal its own foibles.
All this being said, if you are considering writing a memoir, I can’t encourage you enough to do it. There is liberation in shouting your deepest, darkest secrets across that crowded opera house that the veiled whispers of fact-based fiction simply cannot provide. Go ahead and shout — but only if you’re telling the truth as you know it. You may need to cling to the security of knowing you are being honest in the dark night of criticism to come.
Before I sign off for the day, I’d like to throw a question out to all of you truth-tellers out there: how do you work up nerve to write about matters you have never discussed with your family? Is there a line between what is legitimate to use in a memoir and what is too personal to tell, and if so, who gets to draw that line?
Please send your good ideas on this subject via the COMMENTS function, below. I would love to get your thoughts; obviously, these issues are very much on my mind at the moment. Let’s get a conversation going!
And keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini