Falling Off the Memoir Cliff

January 3, 2013 § 11 Comments


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Susan Shapiro, on the NY Times Opinionator Blog, offers an excellent take on an issue that often befuddles beginning nonfiction writers, fascinates editors  and readers, and underlies many (not all) successful book-length memoirs.  Here is a taste, and a link to the full essay:

The author Phillip Lopate complains that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. And I agree. The biggest mistake new writers make is going to the computer wearing a three-piece suit. They craft love letters about their wonderful parents, spouses, children and they share upbeat anecdotal slices of life. This rarely inspires brilliance or self-insight. Drama, conflict and tension are more compelling, especially when the piece starts with your “I” narrator about to fall off a cliff (metaphorically, of course). It’s counter-intuitive  but qualities that make you likable and popular in real life – good looks, wild success, happy marriage, lovely home, healthy confidence – will make a reader despise you. The more of a wreck you are from the start, the more the audience is hooked.

But remember, a litany of bitterness will not suffice. My rule for first person nonfiction is: question, challenge and trash yourself more than anyone else. My favorite essays begin with emotional devastation and conclude with surprising metamorphosis. This is why true stories of failure, addiction, breakups, financial ruin and recovery are so intriguing.

The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice, I warn my classes. If you want to be popular with your parents and siblings, try cookbooks.

Shapiro’s full essay, Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.

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§ 11 Responses to Falling Off the Memoir Cliff

  • Alexis Paige says:

    “The first piece you write that your family hates means you found your voice.” –I was afraid of that! Thanks for the post.

  • Lois says:

    I never thought about it in quite this way before, but it’s true. People like to see that they’re not the only ones who are imperfect/ messed up/ whatever.

    Thanks for this!

    ~L

  • Thanks for sharing this, loved the article. I write a lot of memoir and am often wearing that suit and afraid and now realize this was killing my writing. So, into the fray and frowns with family I go.:)

  • Great essay I’m going to use to launch my own class next week–but whoa, surprisingly vicious comment stream fight happening on the NYTimes blog in response. I thought we’d left out-and-out memoir hatred back in the 90s….Thanks for posting here.

  • sally says:

    I agree with your essay 100% and realize good writing stems and blooms from the heart and the wreck.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Reblogged this on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and commented:
    People often tell me they are writing a memoir. Here’s some fantastic advice from Susan Shapiro, on the New York Times Opinionator blog.

    Are you writing about “falling off the cliff”? If so, great. And if so, make sure you are avoiding the “litany of bitterness.” What’s your change? What’s your metamorphosis?

  • Angel Pricer says:

    Great post! For me, it’s been precisely BECAUSE people would worry I’m not *OK* that has kept me from sharing a lot of my more moving pieces. I’d love to be in one of these classes!

  • Mandy Len says:

    Annie Dillard’s take on the question is an interesting (and relevant) counter approach. From “To Fashion a Text”:

    “I tried to leave out anything that might trouble my family. My parents are quite young. My sisters are watching this book carefully. Everybody I’m writing about is alive and well, in full possession of their faculties, and possibly willing to sue. Things were simpler when I wrote about muskrats.

    Writing in the first person can trap the writer into airing grievances. When I taught writing I spent a lot opf time trying to convince young writers that, while literature is an art, it’s not a martial art – that the pages of a short story or a novel are no place to defend yourself from an attack, real or imagined, and no place from which to launch an attack, particularly an attack against the very people who painstakingly reared you to your present omniscience.
    [...]

    As a result of all of this, I’ve promised my family that each may pass on the book. I’ve promised to take out anything that anyone objects to – anything at all. [...]

    I don’t believe in a writer’s kicking around people who don’t have access to a printing press. They can’t defend themselves.”

    Although, in the age of the blogosphere, maybe that last observation is no longer relevant.

  • I tend to side with Annie Dillard (and Scott Russell Sanders, who’s mentioned his very similar policy in a conversation with my students) for a number of reasons, among them my worry that the kind of memoir Shapiro advocates can get by on its drama and therefore needn’t be intelligent or literary. Now, I know of many examples to counter my claim, but they’re in the minority, and I find plenty of value (for writer and reader) in memoirs that wash the dirty laundry before hanging it out to dry.

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