Something clicked for me when I read Susan Shapiro’s December 31 opinion piece in the New York Times this week. I realized that memoir writers are actually getting advice from memoir teachers, and probably from agents and other industry professionals too, to showcase as much messiness and tragedy as possible (granted, with the transformation or metamorphosis that will inevitably follow) if they want their work to get published.
I admire Sue Shapiro a lot. Her students love her. I truly enjoyed Lighting Up. She even published a book with Seal about writing, though I wasn’t her editor. But as a memoir teacher myself, I think her advice to writers is a slippery and problematic slope. Her piece is opinion, no doubt meant to be provocative. What Sue is talking about, however, when she’s writing about confessional writing, is what’s referred to in the industry as “misery memoir.” Misery memoir sells. I have a whole section about it in my own book. Regina Brooks, awesome agent and friend, refused to label misery memoir as such in her book, You Should Really Write a Book, instead opting for “transformational memoir,” and for good reason. People writing misery memoir usually hate the term. But misery memoir does sell.
Bestselling misery memoirs include Running with Scissors, The Glass Castle, The Tender Bar, Lit, Dry, Jesus Land, Tweak, Unbearable Lightness, and many many more. These are memoirs about drug abuse, eating disorders, messed-up relationships, kids who are messed up, dysfunctional family dynamics. Sue writes in the NYT:
Sharing internal traumas on page one makes you immediately knowable, lovable and engrossing.
There’s something to this (where misery memoir is concerned), though I think the value of spilling out your internal traumas on page one is a bit overstated. In Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, we eventually discover she’s a sex addict. She cheated on her husband. She more-than-dabbled with heroin. It’s intense, for sure, and her vulnerabilities made her likeable. But I wouldn't characterize her book as misery memoir, and there were many scenes far more engrossing (the one in which she shoots her mother’s horse; or the one at her therapist’s office where she tries to explain a divorce she can’t fully understand).
The point I want to get across is a point of caution: memoir is not the Trauma Olympics. Not even misery memoir. I used to receive query letters at Seal Press that made me wince. After all, a publisher known for its sexual and domestic abuse list gets a lot of really difficult-to-read queries. You must treat your traumas so delicately. Parading them around feels exhibitionist and off. Being too dispassionate about them makes you seem disconnected. The only people who really can and do pull off successful misery memoirs are those writers who have done a lot of personal work, and who are, to some extent, “healed.” We used to say at Seal that certain submissions felt like a writer’s journal. Like a cathartic draft. I’m VERY supportive of this kind of writing, but it doesn't mean it’s ready to be published. And it doesn’t mean that the author has any idea of what’s in store for him or her once it is published. Are they ready to talk and write about and relive their traumas not only while they write, but while they promote and sell? Certainly some are, but many are not.
We live in a confessional society, and no doubt the popularity of misery memoir has encouraged many writers to write stories that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. But when approaching a publisher, you must be tempered. I saw countless query letters in which a woman’s story included some combination of eating disorder, abuse, sexual promiscuity, dysfunctional family dynamics, substance abuse, etc. They were showcasing their traumas, and it was too much. Real misery memoir works when you drip in the painful stuff little by little. It works when you have enough distance from what you experienced so that your self-understanding of who you were back then shines through as much as your recalling of the difficult experiences.
Don’t for one minute believe that the more messed up you seem on the page the more likely your book is to sell. You must be honest, it’s true, but more important, you must be grounded and level-headed and self-aware so that the reader knows that you actually are okay.