September 7, 2017 § 22 Comments
More than a year ago, I completed a draft of a memoir I’d been wanting to write for a very long time. It’s hard to say when the need to tell this story began. I started keeping journals as a pre-teen, and I’ve continued to fill notebooks throughout my adulthood. I signed up for my first creative writing class when I was 32 and pregnant with my oldest child. While my kids were toddlers, I began exploring my memory, crafting short pieces that I wasn’t sure would become a connected whole. In 2009, when I was 41, I applied to graduate school with the intention of writing a cohesive memoir. After I earned my MA, it took another two years to figure out how to shape my story from beginning to end.
Strangely though, since I finished the draft, the urgency I once felt has faded. It’s been usurped, I think, by fear—fear of being seen, of being known, even though being known is what I wanted most, because I’d felt unseen and unheard for much of my life.
My fear is multifaceted. My story cannot be understood without saying who and what have caused me to feel small and invisible. Some writers have waited until the secret keepers died before telling their stories. We are conflicted by our loyalty to those from whom we’ve always sought permission to speak. We don’t want to inflict pain, despite the pain we’ve experienced ourselves. We are afraid that if we tell our stories, ties to important people in our lives might be irreparably damaged or, even worse, severed altogether.
I’m uncomfortable with the possibility that by publishing my memoir I may hurt someone close to me, but I’m also afraid I’ll be hurt myself by the reactions of my loved ones. Am I resilient enough to withstand the very real possibility that some may try to discredit my own lived experience?
Was I fair in my writing? Did I talk enough about good moments, happy times? Then again, maybe my telling is too subtle, tries to make things sound too normal, when so much was not normal at all.
After so many years of writing, I’m no longer sure I’ll try to publish this book. I’m already a better person and a better writer for having completed the draft. I’ve begun to trust my voice and I’ve learned to see a long project through to completion. I kept the promise I made to myself to finish writing the story.
But I suspect that if publishing my memoir wasn’t important to me, I wouldn’t be sitting here anguishing over it. My original need to be known lingers and won’t be satisfied by confining my story to my hard drive. I want to connect with others who’ve had similar experiences, to help them also be heard and seen and known.
Money’s always nice, but I didn’t set out to write a book as a means of earning income. The respect of the literary community, though, does matter to me, which raises another fear—that my writing isn’t good enough to communicate my experience clearly and my motivation for telling this particular story will be misunderstood by readers who don’t know me in real life.
I’ve read takes by successful authors on the fallout from publishing their own stories—a gazillion different opinions on the ethics of memoir—and I’ve developed my own pretty strong opinion: I think everyone has the right to tell their own story, being careful to include only what’s absolutely necessary from the overlap with others’ stories, and that it’s best for each writer to trust their own judgment when it comes to anticipating consequences in their relationships.
It turns out that I’m the one who must give myself permission to release my memoir into the world, negative reactions be damned.
If I decide to publish, I’m certain someone will find something in my memoir to criticize. It’s possible some people won’t understand my story or won’t like me very much for publishing it. Will I like me if I publish it? Will I like me if I don’t? Will I respect myself? Answering these questions won’t banish my fear, but will help me find the courage to proceed.
Karen Pickell holds a MA from Kennesaw State University. Her work has appeared in Bluestem Online Quarterly, Conte, and in several independently published anthologies. She founded the website Adoptee Reading Resource and she blogs at karenpickell.com. Originally from Ohio, Karen currently lives in Florida.
October 8, 2015 § 7 Comments
At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:
I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.
Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.
Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.
Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?
Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.
As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”
September 24, 2015 § 13 Comments
Like many of our readers, I’ll give up my paper books when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I love them like I love the Oxford comma. I fill my shelves with books I adore, books I might like to read someday, and books so multiply-read I can open them at random, enjoy a section over lunch, and reshelve them without feeling incomplete.
The projected digital apocalypse worried me as both reader and writer–would having my book on paper no longer be an option when the time came? Was I just silly, as a constant traveler, to resist loading up a Kindle with everything I could possibly read on the train? Was I contributing to the coming devastation by downloading Harry Potter 7 to my phone and reading it under the covers, squinting at my close-held phone through one un-contact-lensed eye?
The New York Times reports that digital sales have slowed sharply, falling by 10% in the first five months of 2015. Readers–even young digital natives–go back and forth between devices and paper. The American Booksellers Association counts more independent bookstore members in 2015 than they had five years ago.
Digital’s still strong–the statistics don’t include cheap, plentiful self-published e-books, and Amazon’s unlimited-e-book service is somewhere in the mix–but it’s nice to know print isn’t going away any time soon.
Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her latest essay, “Write About Indians” is part of Drunken Boat‘s Romani Folio this month.
April 27, 2015 § 5 Comments
Wouldn’t it be nice?
Sure, your literariest of literary essays are coming to Brevity (don’t disillusion us!), but it’s also great to get a personal essay into a major market–high circulation, millions of clicks, sometimes a fat check. It can be intimidating to get started, though.
You probably already know the first step: read everything you can in the specific venue in which you want to publish. As Sara Mosle wrote in The New York Times,
Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point” and a New Yorker staff writer, told me how he prepared, years ago, to write his first “Talk of the Town” story. “Talk” articles have a distinct style, and he wanted to make sure he got the voice straight in his head before he began writing. His approach was simple. He sat down and read 100 “Talk” pieces, one after the other.
I’ve done the same with the New York Times Modern Love column, even sitting down and analyzing story structure like I did back in high school English class, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I have pages in my notebook with lists of potential stories, organized by where I think might buy them. When it’s time to write, I flip through and choose an idea to work on.
But what next? How do you pick the story that suits the venue, how do you make your pitch (selling the idea) or submission on spec (selling an already-written piece) stand out? At Writer’s Digest, Susan Shapiro has a great list of guidelines and helpful tips for getting a personal essay into a major magazine or newspaper. She covers what to write, how to write it, and how to send it. My personal favorite:
6. Take Action
Often I see pieces by beginners about a conflict that isn’t resolved. They are stuck in a bad relationship or lousy addiction that has no ending or solution in sight. It’s hard to write well about drinking or drugging unless you’re sober and drug-free, and it’s hard to have perspective on your dating woes if you’re still single. Instead of staying stuck, chronicle your plan to change. I’ve written humorous essays and even books about visiting my worst old boyfriends to get their take on why we broke up, interviewing my mentors for advice, quitting all my addictions, and seeing eight shrinks in eight days (going speed shrinking instead of speed dating). A.J. Jacobs famously spent 12 months getting healthy, and another year “living Biblically.” Gretchen Rubin searched for happiness. Ryan Nerz traveled around the country trying to win eating contests. Maria Dahvana Headley said yes to any nice single guy who asked her out (and met her husband along the way). My student Kayli Stollak joined JDate with her divorced Jewish grandmother and wound up with a blog, book and TV pilot called Granny Is My Wingman.
As an editor myself, it’s always more interesting to read an essay about taking action and succeeding or failing than it is to read a more ruminative piece in which the author literally or figuratively sits still.
Whether you’re ready to submit to a national mass market or not, Susan’s advice is solid for writing any personal essay. Focus, be timely, know your audience, get feedback.
Check out Susan’s piece here.
March 19, 2013 § 7 Comments
Once upon a time, I had an agent. And not just any agent. A glamorous, big-time agent with a firm in London (not even New York–London!). I found her through an introduction from a professor of mine, and she enthusiastically took me on. She called my manuscript, a memoir about my experiences in the tiny West African country of Cape Verde, a gorgeous, lyrical memoir, a work that would open readers hearts and minds.
I was flattered, I admit.
I saw stars. I saw book deals and bestseller lists and maybe even a movie version featuring Gwyneth Paltrow. No, Natalie Portman. No…
There ensued an exciting year of transatlantic emails and phone calls. The agent did several rounds of submissions to big presses both in the U.S. and abroad. I received a number of tantalizingly close rejections.
Then: silence. I tried to convince my agent to submit to smaller presses, but she wasn’t familiar with small presses in the U.S., and didn’t seem eager to pursue that path. I had other things going on, anyway. A baby. A graduate program. A move to a different state. Another baby.
I published my first book, a collection of poetry, with a university press. Again, my dreams of grandeur–or at least a book prize, maybe a review in a medium-sized literary magazine–came to nothing. Three reviews on Goodreads. A box of author copies under my bed.
Then, almost fifteen years after I’d written my memoir about Cape Verde, I pulled it out again on a whim. I’d seen a small press in Chicago featured in Poets and Writers, and thought, why not?
To my surprise, the press accepted my manuscript less than two weeks after I submitted it. No agent. No high-power negotiations. There wasn’t even a contract.
But I was intrigued. There was something so endearing and energizing about this passionate, committed bibliophile producing books in his Chicago apartment. Plus, he seemed to have a lot of marketing acumen to go along with his enthusiasm. The press took both an up-to-the minute, tech savvy approach, with free e-books, as well as a hip, handmade print edition. They took advantage of the democratic nature of social media to sell their books. The press appealed to both my inner revolutionary, and my inner literary conservative. (Also to my inner wannabe hipster.)
I signed on (figuratively).
Unlike with a big press, or even a university press, there was no two-year wait from acceptance to publication. Within three months, book was edited and proofread, the cover chosen, acknowledgements written. I was an integral part of the entire process. It was a true collaboration, and the editors were incredibly solicitous and accommodating. The cover we decided on was one of my own photos from Cape Verde.
While the university press I work with offers much of this intimacy and responsiveness to the authors, their marketing efforts are modest and fairly traditional. My indie press, on the other hand, is highly invested in selling copies and generating buzz, and works with an independent publicist, who has already proved invaluable in finding avenues for promoting my book.
The first edition of my book is just going to press now (or rather, just now being hand-assembled in my publisher’s living room). I’ve already seen photographs of the small, bound hardback–it looks beautiful!–and am eagerly awaiting the mail delivery that will place the final product in my hands.
In some ways, the journey is just beginning. But already, I couldn’t be happier with my choice of publishing with one of the many innovative independents that are taking advantage of all the advantages that technology–both very new and very old–have to offer.
Eleanor Stanford is the author of Historia, Historia: Two Years in the Cape Verde Islands (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography), and The Book of Sleep (Carnegie Mellon Press). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, and many other journals. She lives in the Philadelphia area.
April 26, 2008 § 2 Comments
I don’t know: is this success for those of us who stoke the fires of the creative writing world, or something very different?
From the New York Times:
In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles.
University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work.
The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”
February 6, 2008 § 1 Comment
When first encountering this snippet of Lee Smith’s WSJ Interview, I thought she was being pretty negative, but by the end of the paragraph, I saw what she meant. Anyone who just experienced the AWP Bookfair saw what she means as well. Brevity, I hope, is part of the change.
Do you think it’s more difficult to get published as a new voice today than before?
Ms. Smith: Absolutely. This is the horrible irony that just kills me, as I read this very important and exciting work. Because I think we have more excellent new writers who really have something to say, writing in America than we have ever had before. But the horrible irony is that there are fewer and fewer places for good fiction, literary fiction in particular, and poetry and creative nonfiction to be published. At the same time as the number of excellent new writers is growing, our country is dumbing down. People are not reading. Consequently, publishing is in a state where they are publishing less and less serious fiction, serious poetry. So here you have all these wonderful writers with essentially nowhere to publish. And this is giving rise to small literary outlets and particularly I think too, online magazines and to blogging. So there’s a whole different kind of thinking about writing and where it will be heard and read and seen coming in now. Everything is changing.