• Brooke Warner
  • Memoir Bashing: An Examination of an Emotionally Complex Social Phenomenon
Memoir Bashing: An Examination of an Emotionally Complex Social Phenomenon
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
January 2015
Outlining
Contributor
Written by
Brooke Warner
January 2015
Outlining

As a writing coach and publisher, I’m not supposed to take sides when it comes to genres. I work on all kinds of books—novels, how-to books, essay collections, anthologies, and even poetry collections; but memoir is my true love, and for me the most rewarding of all genres—to edit, to midwife, and to read.

But memoir has a somewhat spotty reputation. It’s often referred to as the bastard child of book publishing. Editors and agents alike are wary of memoir. There’s a rumor—I hear it all the time—that memoir doesn’t sell. It’s not uncommon to hear agents at conferences shutting down bright-eyed aspiring authors with a simple, “I don’t represent memoir.”

But then you take a look around, and you see memoir everywhere in popular culture. This week’s Golden Globes gave nods to the memoirs Wild and Traveling to Infinity (the memoir upon which The Theory of Everything was based). I found this interesting post featuring the 10 Best Movies Adapted from Memoir, and it could have easily been 100 movies long.

For my part, my education in memoir came during my tenure as Executive Editor at Seal Press. I was blessed to work in an environment that celebrated memoir, even as we vowed every single season to acquire less of it. As a women’s press, even the prescriptive material Seal published was usually story-driven, and in marketing meetings we spent a lot of time thinking about how to categorize something that was essentially a memoir as something else—mostly to offset the perception of how much memoir we were publishing.

Even as the industry tries to keep an arm’s length away from memoir, it’s also publishing memoir like crazy. I participated in multiple bidding wars for memoirs in my final years at Seal, and I felt like I was losing more and more good memoir even as my colleagues at bigger houses were saying they didn’t want it.

Beyond the industry, there seems to be mixed feeling about memoir from readers as well. People are clearly reading it and being touched by it, and yet online it’s trashed relentlessly. This line from a Gawker post about the movie Wild (and how much it sucked), written by a woman, struck me:  

I'm not a total hater of movies based on memoirs by women (even though I think a person should exhaust every other possible avenue of creative a/o therapeutic expression before turning to writing down their personal story for public sale).

I immediately wondered why this writer felt the need to qualify that she’s not a total hater of movies based on memoirs by women. Why not just memoirs in general? It got my wheels turning about the perception of memoir as a selfish genre—an exercise in navel-gazing, a self-centered pursuit, etc. I don’t think it’s a far leap to say that the ambivalence surrounding memoir lies in some form of unacknowledged (read: internalized) misogyny. Because even though men write memoirs, it’s not a genre they gravitate to as much as women do. When I’ve seen male memoirists criticized, it’s for accusations of stretching the truth, or outright lying (think Augusten Burroughs, James Frey, Greg Mortenson, and Frank McCourt). Women memoirists, by comparison, tend to be accused of being boring, lame, selfish, tiring, self-centered, slutty, and crazy. No wonder half the writers I work with are so freaking afraid to publish their memoirs!

My own opinion of memoir is the exact opposite of these characterizations. I know memoir-writing to be soul-baring, courageous, and transformative. Any writer who puts their story to the page—who’s willing and strong enough to publicly share their truth—should be championed and celebrated and honored. Instead, they’re often ridiculed and shut down and derided.

My take on what’s happening here is psychological in nature, so bear with me. My sense is that everyone wants to be seen. It’s a basic human desire that’s pure and good, but whose shadow side is jealousy. When other people get recognized—and isn’t being published the ultimate form of recognition?—it can trigger in us an envious rage. Why does their story deserve to be told? We pick it apart and connect with our inner hater. We wonder, What makes her think she’s so special? And if you take that thread further, it probably leads to, Why her and not me?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who are not haters, but true cheerleaders. I teach memoir writing with Linda Joy Myers, the ultimate champion of memoirists. I blog at She Writes (hello!), an amazing community that supports and honors women. I came of age at a feminist publishing house (I know!) that reminded me every day for eight years of the value of publishing women’s voices. Today I continue my personal mission to support women’s voices through my work at She Writes Press. Yes, I’m so so lucky. But to continue to hold on to this luck, we must call out what’s not okay. And it’s not okay to mindlessly trash other people’s hard efforts. If you don’t like the writing or the story, engage in some thoughtful consideration of why. When I first read Eat, Pray, Love, I didn’t like it. I thought Liz Gilbert was too privileged, too honest, too precious; I thought the book was too contrived, too preconceived. I also thought that her story was a lot like mine (I was fresh out of a divorce) and I thought I knew more about Italy than she did (after all, I lived in Spain for a year and dated a Spaniard for four). She’d struck a nerve, and I was pissed at her for having the gumption to write (beautifully, yes) about something I was still processing in my own life. Nearly eight years later, I read it again, and now, though sane eyes and with distance, I see the gift that Liz brought to her readers—and I love this memoir.

It was eye-opening for me to have this experience because it never would have happened had Eat, Pray, Love been a novel. You don’t get pissed off at a novelist for having your experience, or for articulating it better than you can, or for living their life better than you live your life. You just don’t. And so memoir is complicated. It brings up feelings, and it can bring out the mean girl in all of us. So be aware, and next time you don’t like a memoir, ask yourself why. Is it just a bad book, worthy of your disdain, or does it maybe trigger in you something you’re just not ready to face? And yes, please support women memoirists. We need each other!

 

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the cultural perception of memoir. Share your experiences, please!

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Comments
  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    I second that, Kelly!

  • Very helpful, Brooke!  Right now I'm at the agent-querying stage.  Linda Joy* suggested I was categorizing my book too broadly in my proposal and I should narrow it to attract the right agent.  I was providing too many choices.

    (For others reading this:  Linda Joy Myers, head of National Assn of Memoir Writers and a fabulous writing coach -- esp for memoir writers!)

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Yes, thanks for constantly feeding me ideas, Kelly! To some extent your future publisher will decide how the book gets shelved based on how they want to position it. I tell people to go to bookstores and see where they want their book to be. The problem is that some bookstores don't have memoir sections, so I encourage a double categorization on the back cover, like memoir/travel, or memoir/current events, or travel/current events. At the end of the day there are two notes here: 1. You'll be lucky in today's climate if your book gets shelved at a bookstore at all; and 2. The bookstore has full discretion about where they want to place you, so you can just help them by guiding them with the category on the back. They will also be looking to your BISAC codes in their systems, which are determined by your publisher.

  • Brooke, I'd really appreciate your expertise on how to figure out where in the bookstore a memoir should be placed.  Current events?  Travel writing?  My book, like so many memoirs, is a hybrid -- a journalistic memoir about my recovery from a mid-life loss by immersing myself in the Middle East with people who had lost so much more than me:  Iraqi refugees.  I'm sure others who posted here have similar "hybrid" stories.  

    Maybe a future blog?

    Thanks!

    Kelly Hayes-Raitt

    Mosey on over to my web site and sign in for your free gift -- an mp3 of me reading my book's first chapter about a beggar in Iraq! ...And a pre-publication discount!
  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    The thing you're going to have to lock down is how to make your story as broadly applicable to all families who struggle with any medical emergency child. I'm sure you're thinking that through, but the thing I find with publishers is that if things get too narrow you can become too niche and they don't feel like there's a big enough audience. Good luck with it!! And let us know what ends up happening.

  • Debi Lewis

    Brooke, I am also working on a memoir. I'd like to use some of the writing from the blog, but I see the blog as snapshots of the larger story. My image of the memoir is that there would be both more detail and more big-picture discussion of some of the issues that surround this kind of a journey -- how other families can work with the medical system, how social media and internet research can lend either a sense of calm or heighten one's anxiety, and how to find the crucial resources you need if you can't get them from the diagnosticians. I'm so honored that you took the time to read!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Debi, I just saw your blog posted on Debbie Siegel's FB page after I read through these comments today and spent the last 20 minutes reading. What a story. Are you working on a memoir as well? Or for now just recording your experiences with Sammi on the blog?

  • Debi Lewis

    Thanks, Charlene!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Debi, regarding this question about whether memoirs unfold on blogs, the answer is YES! It's a well-known secret that editors often look for bloggers who get a bit of a following and then scoop them up to write a book. The harder part is turning your blog into a book. You can use the writing as source material, but it mostly needs to be redone in order to become a memoir—I would argue almost always. There are also lots of examples of memoirs that started as blogs—like Julie and Julia, perhaps most famously. When I was at Seal Press I acquired a number of books that started as blog projects, like 31 Dates in 31 Days. Blogging might lend itself to what's known as the Experiment Memoir, but I think blogging to share your story and to have your voice heard is powerful. You just have to be consistent and hang in there even if and when it feels like no one is listening.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Debi: Just read back to Jan 6th and I have to say I am so happy to know ahead of time that Sammi is strong and well and nine years old. I felt my whole body go weak, felt those slight tremors in places and have to say you are one hell of a writer with a huge story to tell. Any of you other memoir writers reading this please check out Debi's site 

    MEanwhile Debi what I may suggest is that you do just this, but publish these pieces more widely, when you are ready to publish. If you go chapter by chapter you often build up a following who want the whole book etc. Also consider if you have the time an audio version because this is a GREAT story and completely compelling. 

    THank you!! 

  • Lea Page

    Debi: One of my favorite memoirs is Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals.  It is happy through and through and doesn't particularly follow the "rules" for story arc etc.  It is also nature writing.  I have read it over and over and I still laugh until I cry each time.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Debi thank you and I'll riff on your phrase "Are there any lives without conflict?" 

  • Debi Lewis

    Charlene, you can take a look at my project, if you like: www.swallowmysunshine.com. And yes! I'd write that series of funny articles, but I wonder if it would get old. Are there memoirs of fabulous lives without conflict?

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Ah well Lea guess I'll just have to wait...!

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Debi: That's a great idea and no I haven't seen anything like it. i spent the first two years of my time on blogs sending out messages of under 150 words. Those messages contained ideas about feeling better right now, wherever you are. Simple and doable. But I have not seen or heard of any blogs dedicated to memoir stories, each instance unfolded one story at a time...if I get your meaning. And I love the title "MY Wonderful EAsy Life: Tales of Joy from 80 Perfect Years" Bet we could write an amazing series of funny articles for that one...any takers? 

  • Lea Page

    Charlene, thank you!  But it isn't out yet.  Am in the midst of preparing for my first book (Parenting in the Here and Now,due out April) and so haven't had a chance to send queries for Something About You yet.  My publisher for the first is a small press, niche publisher, not for memoir.  

  • Debi Lewis

    I've been closely following this conversation as I embark on the memoir I never expected to write. When I was in graduate school for fiction writing, my advisor kept asking me when I was going to write about my own life, or at least about a life like my own. At that age, I didn't see anything special enough in my own story. Oddly, it does seem that struggle feels more important and "story-worthy," and now that I've seen some, I'm compelled to write it. Probably there aren't many successful biographies (or even works of fiction!) called "My Wonderful Easy Life: Tales of Joy from 80 Perfect Years." As many have said in these comments, it is the journey through adversity  that we all find so compelling. What I'm wondering these days is if anyone is sharing these stories outside of the printed page. Are there memoir blogs? Are there people talking about adversity from at least a little distance? I'm trying that and finding it hard to find my peers. Has anyone seen memoirs unfold online?

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Hey Lea you have taken a whole new turn in this road and I admire the view. Yes, the story we tell ourselves is most vitally important and resonates so deeply within, at our body level. When we change this story we are much less affected, less subjected to the stories of others, their opinions etc. Thank you for highlighting this most excellent aspect. And I am eager to read Something About You...am off to look it up!

  • Lea Page

    Thank you Charlene and Cate (and everyone else, too).  All of your comments resonate so much.  I didn't know about Carol Gilligan's study but I did read, recently, an article about creativity and how we humans say we like it but when someone shows up with it, they are often shut down.  Like Cate, I am always hungry for stories of women who did "their thing," regardless.  I am still trying-- in fact, writing memoir IS my way of putting a voice to it.  My memoir, Something About You is my story of moving to a small town in rural Montana and experiencing exactly the dynamics that Charlene describes-- both my daughter and I were subjected to ostracism and bullying, but it was only in the process of writing the memoir, of wrestling with the Story (not just my story), that I was able to objectively step out of the story and learn from it.  My takeaway is about how important it is to be aware of the story we tell ourselves-- it is even more important than the story that others may be telling about us!!   So I, too, want to encourage everyone to "wave on," to "tell on!"

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Hi Cate: what great truths you hit on here. It is so difficult to be different, but to know you are, to choose that path takes great courage. Yes, we fear what we do not understand and anyone who goes ahead of us, who chooses her own path may be someone we do not understand, then fear, then try to attack or create havoc about. 

    And I love Jimi Hendrix...so true!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    You are spot on, Charlene. Thank you for this thoughtful comment!

  • RYCJ Preparing to Publish

    Wow, Charlene! Now I must check out your memoir. Splendid insight.

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    And thank you Brooke for this great post! Lots of energy tapped here!

  • Charlene Diane Jones

    Wonderful! When have I read through every response to a post before...Never! This post clicks and all the responses remind me of the fertility and warmth, excitement and dynamic exchange that comes from belonging to, even on the ghostly cyber place, a group of women. Especially women writers. 

    Some studies done way back in the 1980's by Carol Gilligan demonstrated that little girls turn against any one of the group of girls who tries to set herself apart, to put herself ahead or make herself stand out. In contrast, little boys challenged one of theirs who did so, but if he held his ground, he was elevated to leader status. I find this helps me understand a great deal about our culture, our exchanges etc. 

    So women who respond negatively to another woman's memoirs fit into that space in my mind, in my heart. It's fine for everyone to have their own view...I'm still looking for the critiques that help me get better, as a writer; critiques that offer me insight into living life. Those critiques from men or women sound in my deeps and create change within. 

    Memoirs are yes, as noted here the equivalent of sitting around the fire, telling each other our stories and also as noted here we need that to fulfill something in ourselves. We need models of women who have overcome, endured, made it. We need to know the rough and tumble, the tough and awful experience of other women and how they coped. Neuroscience names is Mirror Neurons, those neurons in the front of our brain that capture an image and try to fit it on our personality, those neurons that blend the notion of "myself" with others. 

    Memoir then. It's the same questions in every writing: there is the content, then there is the craft. If the content is excellent and the story gripping, then the craft of writing must uphold that, display it. That's at its highest. If the story is gripping but the craft fails then as a book as a read, it's a weaker experience. In other words our honest struggle and difficult achievements in life still need the best crafting we can bring from writing. 

    I am so inspired to know others are writing memoirs and that their stories contain information about how to overcome life's tough spots. My own memoir does the same. It is the emphasis on how to overcome that matters to me. I so look forward to reading more of your memoirs!!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for sharing this, Liz. It's a helpful perspective, and I think your book—and many books that are memoir-driven—are hybrids. That said, there are many memoirs that have helped others by virtue of an author sharing their truth and their experience. And there are many memoirs that have broken the mold, so to speak, and leveraged their writers into huge careers that extend well beyond their memoir (Liz Gilbert probably being the best example).

    Sherry—also good points. I share your sentiments, and believe there are many reasons to applaud memoir.