Nobody Cares About Your Dead

June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments


I read a lot of not-yet-published memoirs. As an editor, I’m sometimes the first stop after the first draft:

I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?

Sometimes I’m a last resort:

I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?

The answer is always another question:

What does your book do for the reader?

Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.

But there’s a shortcut.

Write a book that does something for the reader.

Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”

Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:

…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!

Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.

What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?

  • Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.

The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!

  • Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.

I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!

  • Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.

I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!

  • Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.

I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!

Take a look at your own manuscript:

  • Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
  • Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
  • Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?

H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.

Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.

_________________________________________________________________
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.

*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.

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