On Not Publishing A Memoir

August 30, 2013 § 13 Comments

scoldIn Salon this week, Emily DePrang discusses her decision not to publish a memoir of her marriage, a decision she made between getting a publisher and waiting on the final contract. DePrang offers a frank and complicated look at the reasons one might reconsider a “tell all,” the role of publishing a book in the life of a writer, and how the wisdom in some of the rejections she received from publishers ultimately rang true to her.

For many of us who work in memoir, it’s worth a careful read. 

Here’s a snippet:

What stopped me was that a memoir’s quality correlates to its honesty, and my book deal would be built on a kind of lie. I would only be pretending to be at peace with my past and ready to share its lessons with the world. I’d only be acting like I thought it was okay to dish my ex’s dirt. I’d seem brave, but it would be kamikaze courage, not an earned, owned courage, not one that endures. It occurred to me that writing a memoir should be like posing nude in front of an art class for three hours, not like flashing a camera after a few tequila shots.

So I backed out. I told my agent I wanted to give the book another draft and another year. He was extremely cool about it. So was the editor who’d offered to buy it. I hadn’t signed anything, so there was no contract breakage. I simply walked to the precipice of my lifelong dream, got vertigo, and walked away.



§ 13 Responses to On Not Publishing A Memoir

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Thanks for this tantalizing topic. I have been working on my memoir for close to 10 years. It has been one of the most rewarding, challenging, invigorating projects of my life, spilling over into subskills galore, a connection with a vibrant memoir writing community, and the challenge of finding my public persona. However, I too have found many reasons not to actually release it yet. My reasons are different from the ones mentioned in this article. Mine include a desire to protect the privacy of my friends, and the passionate desire for creative excellence. “You only get one chance to tell this story to the world. Don’t blow it,” I tell myself.

    As a writer who aspires to communicate with strangers, I understand that an unpublished memoir is little better than a tree falling in a forest, or at least it seems that way from the strict point of view that a writer’s worth is measured by numbers of satisfied readers. And yet, the training ground a memoir provides an aspiring CNF writer is incomparable. The tree has indeed fallen in the forest, and I’m still out in the woodshed with my axe, attempting to cut it into useful pieces.

    Best wishes
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  • Thanks for posting this. What a delicate balance it is! As a fiction writer I struggle with this. My family will recognize themselves regardless of whether they’re represented on the page or not. It’s a tale worth telling, it’s a risk worth taking. I think DePrang is right on when she talks about HER readiness to take on the task. Always be true to yourself.

  • I’ve got a memoir I’m thinking of heavily the decision whether to publish or not. It’s not always such an easy choice.

  • jaschmehl says:

    My mother once called me in a panic after reading one of my more autobiographical essays. “Don’t you worry about alienating yourself even more from your ex-husband’s family?” To be honest, I wrote it with out once thinking of what their reaction to it would be. I re-read the essay with my mother’s worry in mind, and I liked it even more, knowing I’d said in print what I could never articulate in person.

    The key word Ms. DePrang uses is ‘honesty.’ And she is right, if the words lie, then you must not publish. But if they are true, I believe they must be shared. To put them in black and white, to make them tangible and real, dulls the pain they contain when known but unsaid.

    • Marta Szabo says:

      Yes, I agree. For me, nothing is more important than the articulation of a person’s true feelings and memories and experiences. I’m talking about revenge, just truth. Which is almost always painful to others involved in the story b/c one person’s deepest version of a story will never match someone else’s. But I advocate always for the writer, the person willing to discover and write what is most true for her or for him. That’s more precious than anything.

  • Gary Presley says:

    I understand her point about the damage a memoir might do, about the need to separate revenge from explanation, but I doubt many of us (especially writers) are ever at peace with their past. “Reconciled?” Maybe, but that’s about it, I suppose. At least for me. Your mileage may vary.

  • Interesting article, Jerry. I’d love to read your memoir. However, only you can decide when and if it will come out. I guess in the end it depends on your comfort level with what you’ve written and how it will impact your relationships with people you know. That said, my psychic self tells me that it would be best to publish it (using your comfort levels as a guideline for what you reveal and what you hold back). I believe that you not only want to publish it but that you need to to complete your life’s mission. I know you’ll let us know if and when you do. I also know that it will be your masterpiece.

  • rachaelhanel says:

    When the end goal of so many writers is to be published, it takes a lot of courage to pull back at the last minute. I’m working on a book right now and I’m not sure if getting it published is the right move. In this case, it’s a biography of someone who is no longer here to speak for herself. I’m trying to figure out if she would want her story out in the world.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Adding more elements to this discussion: not all memoirs contain information that would hurt others. (Although there’s always the possibility some relative is going to throw herself in front of the train, even when it’s not directed at them.) Like a good comedian, who gets laughs by making fun of herself, good memoir writers are often the “losers” in this honest medium. When I was rejected by all seven top tier colleges I applied to (I forgot to apply to a safer school), it was one of the darkest days of my life, and left me deeply humiliated by a sense of failure for decades. Even remembering it hurt. Only by writing about it have I begun to normalize it as simply “one of those things that happens to people” – not the end of the world but a beginning of my next chapter. My overzealous protection of my “secrets” has always kept me apart from people, and learning to talk about “secrets” has created a much greater sense of peace about being who I am.

    Another type of secret that we protect is a lot creepier: being abused The complex tragedy of child abuse is that usually the one who has been abused feels shamed, never able to speak about it, always isolated by the feeling she did something wrong. Silverman waited until her father was gone, and when she published “Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You” about sexual abusiveness of her father, she was sharing something about herself that most adults until the Memoir Revolution, have been unwilling to reveal in public. She was sure her cousins would hate her for it. Instead they came forward wishing they could have done more to save her. Revealing her father’s secrets might have “hurt” him, at least his memory, but the revelation also freed her from the prison of silence.


    • martaszabo2013 says:

      Yes yes and yes, Jerry. I love your point about the writer herself — in a good memoir — may not come out smelling of roses. And the term “Memoir Revolution” is great! Vive la revolution!

  • […] not to publish a memoir she’d written, even after being offered a contract. I found it here on the Brevity […]

  • Reblogged this on Kerry Headley and commented:
    I am still unwinding from my trek across the country. I’ll be back shortly, but in the interim read this. It’s way more articulate than I can be right now.

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