Memoir Bashing: An Examination of an Emotionally Complex Social Phenomenon

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A guest post by Brooke Warner, publisher at She Writes Press

Brooke and I are colleagues in our Write Your Memoir in Six Months Program and offer telesminars together. We have a new eBook just released: Breaking Ground on Your Memoir–check it out! Brooke’s post here is one of the best articles I’ve read on the controversies that memoir writers have to confront.

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people circleAs a writing coach and publisher, I’m not supposed to take sides when it comes to genres. I work on all kinds of books—novels, how-to books, essay collections, anthologies, and even poetry collections; but memoir is my true love, and for me the most rewarding of all genres—to edit, to midwife, and to read.

But memoir has a somewhat spotty reputation. It’s often referred to as the bastard child of book publishing. Editors and agents alike are wary of memoir. There’s a rumor—I hear it all the time—that memoir doesn’t sell. It’s not uncommon to hear agents at conferences shutting down bright-eyed aspiring authors with a simple, “I don’t represent memoir.”

But then you take a look around, and you see memoir everywhere in popular culture. This week’s Golden Globes gave nods to the memoirs Wild and Traveling to Infinity (the memoir upon which The Theory of Everything was based). I found this interesting post featuring the 10 Best Movies Adapted from Memoir, and it could have easily been 100 movies long.

For my part, my education in memoir came during my tenure as Executive Editor at Seal Press. I was blessed to work in an environment that celebrated memoir, even as we vowed every single season to acquire less of it. As a women’s press, even the prescriptive material Seal published was usually story-driven, and in marketing meetings we spent a lot of time thinking about how to categorize something that was essentially a memoir as something else—mostly to offset the perception of how much memoir we were publishing.

Even as the industry tries to keep an arm’s length away from memoir, it’s also publishing memoir like crazy. I participated in multiple bidding wars for memoirs in my final years at Seal, and I felt like I was losing more and more good memoir even as my colleagues at bigger houses were saying they didn’t want it.

Beyond the industry, there seems to be mixed feeling about memoir from readers as well. People are clearly reading it and being touched by it, and yet online it’s trashed relentlessly. This line from a Gawker post about the movie Wild (and how much it sucked), written by a woman, struck me:

I’m not a total hater of movies based on memoirs by women (even though I think a person should exhaust every other possible avenue of creative a/o therapeutic expression before turning to writing down their personal story for public sale).

I immediately wondered why this writer felt the need to qualify that she’s not a total hater of movies based on memoirs by women. Why not just memoirs in general? It got my wheels turning about the perception of memoir as a selfish genre—an exercise in navel-gazing, a self-centered pursuit, etc. I don’t think it’s a far leap to say that the ambivalence surrounding memoir lies in some form of unacknowledged (read: internalized) misogyny. Because even though men write memoirs, it’s not a genre they gravitate to as much as women do. When I’ve seen male memoirists criticized, it’s for accusations of stretching the truth, or outright lying (think Augusten Burroughs, James Frey, Greg Mortenson, and Frank McCourt). Women memoirists, by comparison, tend to be accused of being boring, lame, selfish, tiring, self-centered, slutty, and crazy. No wonder half the writers I work with are so freaking afraid to publish their memoirs!

My own opinion of memoir is the exact opposite of these characterizations. I know memoir-writing to be soul-baring, courageous, and transformative. Any writer who puts their story to the page—who’s willing and strong enough to publicly share their truth—should be championed and celebrated and honored. Instead, they’re often ridiculed and shut down and derided. My take on what’s happening here is psychological in nature, so bear with me. My sense is that everyone wants to be seen. It’s a basic human desire that’s pure and good, but whose shadow side is jealousy. When other people get recognized—and isn’t being published the ultimate form of recognition?—it can trigger in us an envious rage. Why does their story deserve to be told? We pick it apart and connect with our inner hater. We wonder, What makes her think she’s so special? And if you take that thread further, it probably leads to, Why her and not me?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are not haters, but true cheerleaders. I teach memoir writing with Linda Joy Myers, the ultimate champion of memoirists. I blog at She Writes (hello!), an amazing community that supports and honors women. I came of age at a feminist publishing house (I know!) that reminded me every day for eight years of the value of publishing women’s voices. Today I continue my personal mission to support women’s voices through my work at She Writes Press. Yes, I’m so so lucky. But to continue to hold on to this luck, we must call out what’s not okay. And it’s not okay to mindlessly trash other people’s hard efforts. If you don’t like the writing or the story, engage in some thoughtful consideration of why. When I first read Eat, Pray, Love, I didn’t like it. I thought Liz Gilbert was too privileged, too honest, too precious; I thought the book was too contrived, too preconceived. I also thought that her story was a lot like mine (I was fresh out of a divorce) and I thought I knew more about Italy than she did (after all, I lived in Spain for a year and dated a Spaniard for four). She’d struck a nerve, and I was pissed at her for having the gumption to write (beautifully, yes) about something I was still processing in my own life. Nearly eight years later, I read it again, and now, though sane eyes and with distance, I see the gift that Liz brought to her readers—and I love this memoir.

It was eye-opening for me to have this experience because it never would have happened had Eat, Pray, Love been a novel. You don’t get pissed off at a novelist for having your experience, or for articulating it better than you can, or for living their life better than you live your life. You just don’t. And so memoir is complicated. It brings up feelings, and it can bring out the mean girl in all of us. So be aware, and next time you don’t like a memoir, ask yourself why. Is it just a bad book, worthy of your disdain, or does it maybe trigger in you something you’re just not ready to face? And yes, please support women memoirists. We need each other!

Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press, president of Warner Coaching Inc., and author of What’s Your Book? and How to Sell Your Memoir. Brooke’s expertise is in traditional and new publishing, and she is an equal advocate for publishing with a traditional house and self-publishing. She sits on the board of the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) and the National Association of Memoir Writers (NAMW).  Her website was selected by The Write Life as one of the Top 100 Best Websites for Writers in 2014. She lives and works in Berkeley, California.

This article was originally posted on SheWrites.com

 

Photo by Vlado from FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

This is the Way It Is

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christmas_decorations_200592We know that writing a memoir shakes us up—it forces us to confront some of the stories we ”tried” to forget, the ones that won’t leave us alone. Writing pushes us to open doors that were closed forever, or so we thought, and open windows to let in fresh air. It rearranges the furniture in our minds, and makes us tramp through old gardens to find new shoots that are still alive and growing. Writing a memoir is full of surprises and dread and hope and anger. And sometimes it brings us to screaming as we walk around our house, scaring the cats. And other times the tears are welcome and refreshing, clearing our hearts of broken dreams to make room for new parts of ourselves.

Families huddle in the doorway, slyly hoping we will write about them but prepared to get angry if we do. They stare at the invisible line of “dirty laundry” that we’re not supposed to air in public, and wish they had different last names. Even if they do have different names, they are worried about what we are writing there in the back room, what ghosts we might summon they thought they’d banished. We are dangerous to know, and sometimes we are not welcome at Thanksgiving. Or if they let us in, they laugh too loud and try to avoid the stories because they know we have a tape recorder secretly running on our laps to get the dialogue just right and the stories are bigger than the turkey or the table and they start coming anyway, and after dinner out comes the photo box, you know the one that is broken down, with those little squares with white borders, wrinkled, some protected with white tissue paper, the faces from another era and another world staring back at us. They are supposed to be our relatives but now they are strangers and they are dead, but sometimes they were smiling and we can’t help but wonder what had just been said before the camera snapped and if they got into that Ford coupe under the bare trees and zoomed off together wearing their Sunday finery, and then what happened after that. But we will never know because there aren’t even any names on these scraps of photos and no stories. No one wrote them down.

Over apple pie, the family runs to the dictionary to look up words like “truth” and “lie” and start to argue about that summer when we were eight and Uncle Fred acted funny in the back room with the little girls whether grandma wore green or blue to the wedding, or if grandpa had a war wound or was it from a fall. But other times they bring the stories to us like bright ribbons of memory and a ticker tape parade of  “do you remember,” and “I’ll never forget the Christmas that we…” and the colored ribbons furl upward toward the sun, and it all starts then, the rolling music of the stories and the cadences of memories told in sepia and rose, framed by Norman Rockwell. Because that’s how we’d rather remember it all, the myths and the good moments, the snapshots of laughter as we put the other stories behind, until we ask ourselves in the cold solitude of our writing studios later, “What really happened, and do I have to tell it that way? Can’t I just pretty it up and smooth it out, and then I’ll have better holidays, and no one will not look at me with the look that says, ‘watch out for him, he’s that memoir writer.'” Truth, the dance. Truth, the teacher. What is it?

As we write, we unearth the layers of time, dirt and all, the imperfections along with the bright smiles of hope that cross everyone’s face, even the suffering parents who hit us too often, thinking about the times they couldn’t believe their youth was over and it was all up to us now to make the world anew. There are the stories that are true and the stories we believe, and the way we want to remember everything, and who’s to say what’s true. It’s all true and it’s not true, and we have to do our best to find the threads that we can weave together and say, “This is my story. This is the way it is for me.”

How to Cure the “Shoulds”—Write What You Love

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I’m always curious about what the antidote will be for the times when we’re unable to write, when the words and ideas have dried up, when it’s better to binge-watch “Homeland” or “Outlander” or “The Good Wife.” I recently came upon one of these “dry” spells, where I had no motivation at all to go to the computer, though the “shoulds” plagued me every day. I should work on the three chapters I still need to edit, and start chunking out four chapters for a book on creativity and silence. I’ve started another memoir, and where is that project anyway? I must be fooling myself. Me, a writer? Where? When?
There are blog posts to write, and ideas for another workshop. but…I fast forward to season 4 of Downton Abbey as I get ready for season 5, as always enjoying the costumes and accents and English customs—and tea in cute cups for every stressful occasion. I tell myself I’m resting from having been sick—it’s true I was sick, but really, it’s time to get back to work. I find books that I think will stimulate my mind so I can write again, flip through some pages, and put them back on the shelf while I make more tea. Then it’s time for another “Homeland” episode in the new season! I’m mesmerized by the characters and plot twists, even though I already know what happens. Anything to sit on the couch away from the computer. My mind is mush.

Perhaps it’s because it’s nearly Christmas, or because of the antibiotics I was taking, I tell myself. But I started to worry about and then mourn my lost writing self. Facebook posts from other writers show an intense amount of activity, non-stop writing, it seems. Some people post that they write six hours a day, every day. Sigh.

Then I took the book off the bookshelf that has always lifted me away from such moments in the past, though I didn’t think anything could do it this time: If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland. I have quoted her in many articles and in my books, and I can tell you how uplifting her words are and how we should heed them: that we are all amazing creative creatures, that every one of us has something important to say and it’s imperative that we say it. But just as you can play that magical game where you open a book and put your finger on a sentence and notice how it fits for you right then, this book offered me something I know but forgot that I know: We need to write out of love.
Her example is Van Gogh—how he speaks in his letters to his brother of drawing a scene outside his window with a tree and a star and a luminous sky. He drew it because he loved it. She offers other quotes from his letters about painting what he loves, being with what is real and meaningful to him, sinking his presence into this love.

…”the creative impulse of Van Gogh, a great genius, was simply loving what he saw and then showing off, but out of generosity….I understand that writing is this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had. That writing is not a performance but a generosity.”

And then I get it—I have been a victim of the “shoulds,” me, who “should” know better. How many people do I support to do their writing—dozens—but finding my way back to my own writing? Difficult. Yet this fallow period seems a useful experience because I know that as long as I’m struggling with the same things that my students struggle with, I will be freshly tuned into the same challenges that are hard for them. As long as I’m writing essays to try out a new voice or form (when I’m able to write), or trying to come out of a bleak writing period like now, I’m close emotionally to all that goes on as we write, as we try to shape worlds from words. I’m inside the struggle, just like they are.

After I read the quote about writing from love, I took a long walk with the idea of writing from love tingling in my mind. I realized as I walked that the burden of “I should write today” was clogging up my creative process. Very gently I began to think about what I loved, and why I write about creativity and passion and memoir, and what it does for me to carry that torch. After my walk, on the way home in the car, another bit of synchronicity happened: on NPR Armistad Maupin was interviewing Alan Cumming about his book Not My Father’s Son–A Memoir.

I recognized him from his role in” The Good Wife”, and as the host of Masterpiece Theatre. In the interview with Maupin, he spoke about the journey that his family took as part of a program on genealogy. The producers research the family’s past and come up with surprises that are presented on the air without previous warning. His memoir goes into that experience/shock along with the story of his own personal past. His book tells the tales of his childhood, which include heart stopping details about the physical and mental abuse by his father.
He told the audience how empowering it was to take the stories and memories that have always been a secret and bring them out into the open. Most of the time we find ourselves protecting the abusers and carrying the shame ourselves for what happened, but telling our truth frees us from the trap. He acknowledged it was difficult for him and his family to be so exposed in the program about their past, and then in the memoir, but now he, his mother and brother are free from protecting the father. They have healed and moved on.

So between Brenda Ueland’s wisdom and Alan Cumming’s confessions, I returned to myself and my writing, and the reasons that I do what I do—out of the love of helping others heal and my belief that the truth does indeed set us free. In the middle of our struggles with voice and permission and truth, sometimes we need to lay low, to muse and to dream, and not give ourselves too hard a time about it. We need to look for the clues that can pull us out again into the light. We need to circle back to doing what we must do—because we love it and it gives our lives meaning.

In writing this, I came back to myself.

Writing Your Holiday Memories

Two young women writing Christmas cards
Happy Holidays!
“Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in.” – Leonard Cohen

 

‘Tis the season! I’d like to welcome all the new and renewed members! We’re so happy that you are part of the “memoir revolution,” as my colleague Jerry Waxler calls this amazing and heartful surge of interest in, and publication of, memoirs. Wherever you are on your memoir journey there are always so many layers yet to learn, develop, and polish in creating a book that can be proudly published. We had a terrific Cyber-sale and I look forward to connecting with all of you, current and new members, at our member teleseminars and at our Roundtable discussions in the upcoming year. I hope you have a joyous holiday season! It was quite a year at NAMW, with the New York Times article and so many amazing and talented speakers and presenters. We are looking forward to a great line up for the New Year.

 


 

Musings about the Holidays

 

It’s a time of the year when the stories of our lives, written and unwritten, show up in Technicolor in our lives as we gather with loved ones and family. Sometimes we want to take those stories and put bows and ribbons on them, and sometimes we want to simply put them in a box and hide them in the back of a closet. But they are there, waiting for us—the stories of our lives, the dark one and the happier ones—we are all part of this amazing human journey.

 

Many of you are writing or starting a memoir, and in all the years that I have known and worked with memoir writers, the main thing I have learned is that writing a memoir is always, always, no matter what your story is, an act of courage. It is brave to grab your memories by their wispy floating tendrils and wrestle them down into a book, a story you actually lived, stories that have meaning and depth and purpose. You have a life lesson that others can learn from and you have something special too—a stick to-itive-ness that means you can not only transform your lived story into something that heals you and offers you a new perspective on old viewpoints, but you have the power to help others too. We are not alone in our joy and pain, we are on this journey through life with others. What we need is to feel the connection, and know there are others out there shining light on the true and real stories that we are passionate about writing. That is what I hope to offer here at the National Association of Memoir Writers—some cheerleading through the programs we present with presenters that offer craft and inspiration.

 

I hope you all join us this season and in the coming year for our teleseminars, Roundtables, workshops and classes. Have a wonderful holiday season, and take notes at your family gatherings this holiday season. They might come in handy as research for your memoir!

 


 

Writing Your Holiday Memories Two young women writing Christmas cards

 

The holidays can be emotional times. Everyone is supposed to be happy but in many families the unwritten and unresolved stories surface. Most families have rituals that carry meaning and create a safe and “happy” way to move the family through the dramas that may erupt. Holidays are gathering points for our memories, our hopes and dreams. Reflect upon these moments, and notice if there is a deeper meaning in them now.

  1. Describe your childhood home during the holidays—how was it decorated? What did your neighborhood and town or city look during the holidays?
  2. During the holidays did you connect with extended family or were the holidays quiet?
  3. What is one of your favorite photographs from a holiday? Describe it and write about why it is your favorite.
  4. Write about your favorite holiday food, recipe, or story that you associate with holiday food rituals—cookie baking, special cakes, or any ritual food that has meaning to you. Use sensual details—color, sound, smell, and taste.
  5. What was your most wished for holiday present? Did you receive it or not? How did the gift you got or didn’t get affect your feelings about the holidays?
  6. Write about Christmas holidays through the decades and how they changed.
  7. What rituals do you bring from past holidays into your celebrations now? If you created new ones, write about why you chose these new rituals.

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Myers makes a compelling case for the power of words as a form of healing and growth.
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professor of psychology, The University of Texas at Austin and author, Opening Up and Writing To Heal 

...the NAMW memoir classes with Linda Joy Myers are wonderful
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