Falling Off the Memoir Cliff
January 3, 2013 § 11 Comments
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.