The Great Competition for the Saddest Story Ever Told


Dear Erin Hosier,

My name is REDACTED and my memoir is titled Life's Not Fair. I grew up with a father who idolized Hitler and turned out to be a pedophile. As a child I blocked out memories that he molested me. When I was a teenager the police raided our home because he had child porn on his computer. My mother has paranoid schizophrenia and our father refused to let us see each other for about a decade. At school I was tormented by bullies and at home I lived in poverty and filth. My sister and I ran away from home and spent time in juvenile detention as teenagers. My little brother committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart because he became delusional and thought it would save our father's life. My little sister died of alcohol poisoning after choking on her own vomit. My siblings were both in their twenties when they died. I have also personally struggled with an addiction to marijuana and alcohol.

I married a man who began using meth, started hallucinating and became physically abusive towards me while I was pregnant. We have two small children together. At that point in my life I spent a lot of my time going to clubs and bars, getting drunk and cheating on my husband with random men. I was under so much stress I had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental hospital for the third time in my life. Our two children were taken by CPS and placed in foster care. Currently I am homeless and trying to get them back from the state. I have had other readers and writer read my story and I was told I have a very unique voice and story. I believe that one day this book will be on the New York Times Best Seller List and that anyone who sends me a rejection letter will one day regret it because this is the kind of story that I can see being made into a movie and making a great deal of money.

There is not another book out there like this one, but I can relate to stories like Glass Castle and Angela's Ashes.
I really hope you will consider representing me. Would you be willing to review a few sample chapters?

Sincerely,

REDACTED


Are you still reading? My editor thought I should cut this letter down because it's so depressingly raw, that you'd get the gist after the first paragraph and probably get turned off, but I wanted to keep it as is since that is precisely the point of this post.

Because I've sold a few memoirs, or maybe just because I'm an agent, I get letters like this every day. You'd think this was an extreme example, but unfortunately it's not. Last week another query promised its author's story would be "realer than Precious." Something about the writer's tone irritated me (it's not a contest!) and I deleted the emailed letter unread and finished my bagel. Who was she to say that her experiences were "realer" than anyone else's, even as she was referencing a fictional character? And then there are the true stories like the one above. A person so victimized by life itself that she probably can't consider the humor in a title such as "Life's Not Fair." But Erin, Mistress of Darkness, why should every book have a silver lining? Why does everything difficult need to be tempered with humor or self-deprecation if we're talking about pedophilia, suicide, poverty and mental illness? The answer is it doesn't...unless you want your story to actually be published.

And another thing: I don't think there's a person reading this who hasn't come face to face with at least three of the myriad of horrors the writer mentions above in her query. Life isn't fair, and thanks to Oprah we all know it. And while I'm sorry we live in a world as cruel and unfair as we do - of course I am, every day - I can not even begin to imagine how I would pitch such a story to editors. It's not that your life sounds like such a total bummer, it's that it only manages to get worse. Where is the lesson? Where is the story? Where is the hope? And what is the point?

Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That's just human nature and the American way. We don't mind if you were forced to bear your father's child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better. But above all, you need to be a better writer than any of the other People With a Horrifying Life Story. And you need to remember what books are for.

Here's how this query letter can be fixed: If you're writing your own story, please know the difference between autobiography and memoir. In general, only really famous people like presidents and rappers can get away with telling us the whole story of their lives. That's an autobiography. But for the most part, memoir is about one aspect of one's life. That's how Mary Karr or Augusten Burroughs or Koren Zailckas can get away with writing more than one memoir - they've built an audience on voice and trust and for better or worse their sales tracks enable them to do it again, usually focused on another time or set of life circumstances. But that's what's key: voice and trust. If readers didn't respond to the over-the-top coming-of-age story of Augusten being raised by his crazy mother's crazy shrink in Running With Scissors, they wouldn't have clamored for his addiction memoir, Dry. And he wouldn't have had the opportunity to publish it.

A memoir is a personal story, but it's written for a reader. It's great if the author experiences some kind of catharsis out of the process of writing her book, but there's all kinds of writing that can aid in catharsis, and therefore publishing should not be the ultimate point. Personal writing - the kind that heals - need not be made into a movie. A memoir is for the reader, the person who can relate but could never quite put their story into words. It's for the reader who always wanted to know what "that" would be like. It's for someone else's enlightenment but more often their entertainment. Memoirs these days are often centered around an "issue." That's not an accident. Large groups of literate people share issues.The key word in that sentence is "share" - it's not all about the writer, it's about the community of readers willing to buy a book.

In the best memoir pitches, the author clearly has enough distance from her story to be able to tell it with clarity and humor. The writing doesn't have to be funny, it just has to understand the necessary balance between lightness and darkness. Unlike in this letter, there has to be a reprieve from the pain every so often. You have to be aware that the reader is not your therapist, even as they are a witness, and that in every tragedy or dark time, there's hope or goodness or art at the end of the process. A good writer can write about anything - I really believe that. They just can't write about everything at once.

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Tags: #nonfiction, #publishing, agent, memoir, query letter

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Comment by Suzanne Barston on October 12, 2010 at 1:28pm
Don't know how I missed this post when you first wrote it, but just wanted to say thank you. I'm in the process of writing a hybrid social issue/memoir hybrid right now (first draft due to the publisher in March and I'm barely a quarter done - the horror) and I've had the hardest time clarifying the "purpose" of my first person narrative - this post put it all in perspective. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I think you may have just broken my writer's block.
Comment by Kathleen B. Jones on August 27, 2010 at 11:37am
Brava, Amalia. Insightful responses to the post. I especially resonated with this: "Even a relentlessly bleak ending can be inspiring in its own way—if nothing else, to remind us that life is immensely more complicated and nuanced than TV and Hollywood movies and novels depict it to be." And this: "However these bits need not be in a linear fashion, and the ending need not be a clear-cut, happy, or even uplifting one to make the experience meaningful and profound and even life-changing for the audience." Since my narrative structure tends toward the fugue in format for the memoir I have been writing, I think it important to underscore the many forms that memoir as reflective exercise and search for meaning can take. Thanks for a very thoughtful post, and for continuing the dialogue. I posted something on the Community blog yesterday that you might find germane to your thinking.
Comment by Amalia Pistilli Conrad on August 26, 2010 at 7:39pm
"Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That's just human nature and the American way. We don't mind if you were forced to bear your father's child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better."
Dear Erin, I am a European who now lives in the States, and I would like to "problematize" (as they love to say in academic theory) your statements above.
Firstly, "human nature" and the "American way" are not the same thing. Audiences in Europe do not seem to mind reading books, or watching movies, without a specifically "uplifting" or "inspiring" message (two attributes that, in themselves, bear defining—what's "inspiring" for someone may be hopelessly dull for someone else). European audiences are also more used to types of writing, film-making, or creativity in general that are more "experimental" and less "linear" in the way of narration, voice, subject matter, etc.
Secondly, starring in your own tv show is perhaps a crass objective for some serious writers/artists. Adam Lambert is not Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen, and I suspect that none of these musicians would have ever made it to the final of American Idol today.
I am not naive and I do understand that, in America, publishing is a business and that even those few remaining small, "avantgarde" presses need money to survive (in Canada and Europe, a lot of these enterprises receive government money or are privately funded). However, there is often a fine line between the crass commercialism of a stereotypical "happy ending" message and what you define as an "uplifting" and "inspiring" one. Even a relentlessly bleak ending can be inspiring in its own way—if nothing else, to remind us that life is immensely more complicated and nuanced than TV and Hollywood movies and novels depict it to be.
Yes, a book and a movie both need a beginning, a middle and an end, we agree on that. However these bits need not be in a linear fashion, and the ending need not be a clear-cut, happy, or even uplifting one to make the experience meaningful and profound and even life-changing for the audience.
I recently saw a French movie horribly titled in the English version "Making Plans for Lena" (the original French title was "Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser", which roughly translates as "No, my daughter, you will not dance", and this "mistitling" alone tells a lot about the cultural difference between American and French audiences.) If I had to give you a "hook" for this movie, it would roughly be: "A neurotic, dissatisfied married woman and mother of two kids in her late thirties, in the middle of divorce proceeding from her husband, quits job, moves to her parents' country home to house-sit while they vacation in Rome, all the while pondering the meaning of her life and of life in general—without coming up with any precise answer in the end."
I much suspect that an American agent or publisher would not give this hook the time of day—were it a film or book synopsis. And it would be a pity, because the movie instead was beautifully poignant, deeply truthful and realistic about the human condition everywhere—not just France. As a middle-aged woman who feels she has made many mistakes in life and perhaps wasted a good half of it, I was deeply affected by this film and it left me thinking about it for a long time. And isn't that what art is supposed to do?
Franz Kafka said "the books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us." Lest you shrug and say "Yeah, Kafka, that damn depressed, sickly writer", let us remember that Kafka, as well as casting an unflinching eye on human despair, was also capable of great irony and humor in his writing.
And an all-American author, William Styron, also said that "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end." That "exhaustion" need not be pessimistic or awful; it could instead be akin to the pleasant, fulfilling exhaustion one feels at the end of a particularly wonderful love-making session.
When did such lofty goals for literature, and art in general, go out of the window?
Have they?
In our times of ephemeral and easy consumption of creative endeavors, has that feeling of "slight exhaustion" as response to the end of a book, or movie, or concert, or theatrical performance or art exhibit, been permanently replaced by a yawn of mild satisfaction, an off-I-go-now-onto-other-business reaction?
I hope not.
Call me old(-fashioned), but as a member of the audience I still want to be surprised, shaken to the core, left exhausted by art. And I know I'm not the only one out there.
I do however agree with many things in your post: the distance, the voice, the ability to communicate your experience to others must all be there to make the writing of a memoir worthwhile. I'm completing a book on my mother's mental illness and unsavory death, and it took me over three years from her departure to be able to start writing about it. By the time I was ready to workshop the pieces in my book, I was also able not to take any comments made by my fellow writers personally and to consider them instead as being just about the writing.
My memoir is for me a creative product, not an act of therapy or a wishful thinking money-making spin, and I want to communicate (if not "inspire" or "uplift") and share the experiences in it with a wider audience, not just express myself.
And I agree that the tone of this query was grating, narcissistic, and for me it made the experiences described sound almost unbelievable. It was relentless, there was no moral of any kind.
There, my take on it is that, instead of a "message", what art needs to be important is some kind of moral—whether this is shared by many or few, whether it is part of the current social mores or antithetical to them.
I could go on as I have many more things to say on this subject but my post is already too long. So thanks to you, Erin, for this—it has certainly stimulated a lot of discussion.
Comment by Candy Fite on August 22, 2010 at 6:57am
I have a quote posted on my desk. "You may never be able to remove the skeletons from your closet, but you can sure make them dance." Speaking from experience, I refuse to be a victim of my past. There's a lot to say for the person who can rise above the tragic moments they've endured; the person who can drag themselves out of their own personal hellhole and climb to the top of the mountain.

Writing a memoir should be about helping and healing others, teaching others and touching the hearts of others. It's about making your skeletons dance.
Comment by Kathleen B. Jones on August 18, 2010 at 6:32pm
"You have to be aware that the reader is not your therapist, even as they are a witness, and that in every tragedy or dark time, there's hope or goodness or art at the end of the process." Insightful commentary, Erin. Helps very much with thinking not only about the query letter for my memoir, but the purpose of writing the memoir at all. We do tell stories, even stories from our own lives, not to hear ourselves talk but to join the conversation with other human beings about ways to make sense of events that happened; in other words, not to report, but to find meaning. And therein lies the hope and the art. My favorite political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, once wrote that even in the darkest of times, as long as there is one left alive to tell a story about resistance, illustrating that what happened didn't have to happen because people resisted, "no more is required...for this planet to remain a fit place for human habitation."
Comment by Chelsea Starling on August 5, 2010 at 8:20am
Whoah. I pray that this woman will come upon a ray of hope and revise her story to include it, and what I mean by revise her story is revise her life. Bless her soul, I can't imagine it is easy to locate a ray of hope in this world after experiencing all that. If she did, now THAT would be a story.

I hope you wrote her back and let her know exactly what's missing, in a kind way. Perhaps some helpful feedback would offer her that tiny glimpse of hope, something she could build on. You have to admit that if her story held a promise of triumph, it would be quite powerful. A person who has been faced with that much adversity and negativity probably has a rough time seeking out hope of any kind. Can you even imagine? Maybe with a little point in the right direction, she could start focusing on hope and it could change her story, and make it absolutely worth telling and sharing.

Honestly, I find some of the responses here to be a bit crass and heartless. Clearly, this person is trying the best she knows how to turn a bad situation into something better for herself. She may not be going about it the right way, but put yourselves in her shoes, and ask yourself if you would be able to do much better given all that. It's responses like this that will rob her of any chance at seeing the world as a place she can find comfort or create hope for herself. That's more depressing than her story if you ask me.
Comment by Lisa Solod on August 5, 2010 at 7:42am
It continually surprises me that people believe that just because they have led a horrible life they automatically have a book in them. Being a writer is much more than telling a tale of woe. Thanks for sharing this with writers here; I hope it provided insight and instruction.
Comment by Kristin Pedroja on August 4, 2010 at 1:26am
Thank you for this, Erin. There is such confusion with 'memoir' and 'autobiography', and you're exactly right - no one cares unless you're famous, or you've got a darn good angle. I'm also put off by the veiled threat that you'll regret a rejection - bit presumptuous. Many lessons here, and thank you for them. No matter what we're writing we must consider our reader at all times.
Comment by Alle C. Hall on July 21, 2010 at 9:39pm
Hey, Erin,

This sentence is great: "The writing doesn't have to be funny, it just has to understand the necessary balance between lightness and darkness." Words to write by ....

AC
Comment by Karen Hamer on July 21, 2010 at 3:11pm
Great commentary. A story should not be about the ashes, but the phoenix who rises above.

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