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 K. Jayne Cockrill on July 20, 2010 at 2:47pm
That was a great post. I can appreciate the distinctions made between memoir and biography, and the reminder of why people would pick up such books to read.
Comment by Marilyn Fried on July 20, 2010 at 1:06pm
I put off reading "Precious" and seeing the movie because it is hard to willingly immerse myself in desperate sadness. On the other hand, I read other nonfiction stories of genocide in Rwanda and Cambodia. I deeply want to understand how people can commit atrocities and survive them as well. Needing to tell a harsh, but true story because you must tell it, even if no one ever reads, is one thing. Angling for a future movie deal is something else. What makes these dark stories readable and compelling is that the human spirit survives and lives past the darkness. Considering how you might make money on your misery turns it into another kind of abuse--sensationalism of abuse to make money. It offends my sensibilities, like victim hood as a profit model. No thanks.
Comment by Brooke Linville on July 19, 2010 at 7:32pm
Quoting Erin: "I get letters like this everyday." So whether this is a real letter or not isn't really the point. The letter was being used as an example about the perversion of the memoir into assuming its a contest as to whose life is crappier instead of seeing it for the art that it is. Jenne' -I don't think your exasperation is necessary.
Comment by Brooke Linville on July 19, 2010 at 5:58pm
I went back and read the letter. It was painful and embarrassing, and reading the letter made me embarrassed for the author! I have to say the best line was the threat of regret and the presumption of a movie deal!
Comment by Sarah Neustadter on July 19, 2010 at 5:29pm
Thanks Meryl. I labored over it: rewrote, revised, and edited...
Comment by Meryl Jaffe on July 19, 2010 at 4:51pm
Great answer, Sarah!
Comment by Sarah Neustadter on July 19, 2010 at 4:23pm
Love.
Comment by Meryl Jaffe on July 19, 2010 at 3:05pm
Hi Erin. For the record, I did not finish the letter. Like many of us, I have had my own traumas and don't need to relive another. I am a closet optimist who is all too aware how short life can be. When I read a book it is typically non-fiction, humor, thought provoking or a book my kids recommended or asked me to read. In short, entertaining - a place to go to get wonderfully distracted. On a second note, as a new member to the writing community I found your blog very helpful. It was an honest look into the reality of publishing - a window I really need. Thank you. I look forward to more.
Comment by Julie Jeffs on July 19, 2010 at 2:26pm
Hey Erin, did you get a little nervous with the part about any agent who didn't sign this author would regret it? I did, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up for a second ... it worried me that nowhere in the letter does the writer say she's in therapy now and getting better. I would have stopped before the end but I kept waiting for the part about learning lessons and life getting better. Still waiting.
Comment by Brooke Linville on July 19, 2010 at 1:13pm
Great post! FWIW I stopped reading the letter after the first couple of lines... we all have stories, some more horrific than others, but ultimately it's in the telling, the lessons, the little bit of humor that make it relatable.

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