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Memoir Is Not the Trauma Olympics
Written by
Brooke Warner
January 2013
Written by
Brooke Warner
January 2013

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 CastleThe 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.

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  • Thanks for circling back around, Cynthia! Good luck. :)

  • Cynthia Riede

    I read this post back in January and it really resonated with me then. I recently read a piece in Creative Nonfiction about this subject and it reminded me to look this post up and read it again. Yup. I agree: what you refer to as Misery Memoir does, indeed, require "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." I'm writing a memoir now that required 30 years of acquiring distance. During that time, I went through the catharsis in other ways (including writing some really crappy drafts that are forever stuffed in my files); now I am striving to write it in a way that offers readers some thoughtful reflection on my experience and, hopefully, a perspective that infuses their own chaos and confusion with fragments of grace and light, if only for a moment. I pray I can pull this off!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for this perspective, Barbara, and congratulations on the success of your memoir. That's wonderful.

  • Barbara Morrison

    Thanks, Brooke. I think your piece and Susan's give us much to think about. I agree with Susan that there has to be tension to drive the story, and that new writers in particular need a jolt to make them dig beyond the superficial. On the other hand, having read many memoirs, I find that I am uninterested in the trauma sweepstakes you describe so well. No matter how lovable the narrator, I want more than just a journey through cancer/addiction/grief/etc. I want a memoir to speak of something larger than that person's life, some issue or concern that we as a society face. Some examples include Andre Dubus III's Townie (sons growing up without fathers) and Jill Sadowsky's David's Story (how society and the medical profession do/do not support families struggling with schizophrenia).

    It took me a long time to find a publisher for my memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, which has gone on to win a bronze IPPY and be a finalist for ForeWord Review's Book of the Year (both in the Memoir category). Recalling the rejection letters, some of them hand-written and full of encouragement, I believe that my memoir was not sufficiently miserable for their market, and that their preconceptions created expectations that weren't met by my picture of myself and other welfare moms I knew as--yes, struggling with horrible problems--still normal moms taking our kids to the park and enjoying good times when we could. Those problems provided plenty of tension for my story! I understand that many readers will struggle with the same expectations, but response so far has been very good.

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your comments @Linda and @B. Lynn. I agree that sometimes what will be your memoir must start with some serious journaling!!

  • Linda K. Wertheimer


    I absolutely love your thoughts here and couldn't agree more. I wrote the cathartic version of my memoir more than a decade ago than put it aside until I could write with more distance and perspective. My new version is completely different.

    Susan Shapiro's piece prompted a lot of debate on my Facebook page as well as on a FB writing friends group I run. Many people thought she was going a bit too far in what she was suggesting.
    There is a difference between spilling our guts on the page and writing something that's truly worth sharing with others.

  • B. Lynn Goodwin

    "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." Wise words. You can't write the memoir when you're going through the experience. Keep journaling instead... JMHO

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your perspective, Miranda. Agreed about The Year Of Magical Thinking!

  • Miranda C. Spencer

    I'm a bit late to this party but Brooke, your blog post and all your comments ring inutitively true. I've been struggling with what I think may be a misery memoir for a while so this advice is welcome! I wanted to add that Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking" is a really good misery memoir, in part because it reads so dispassionately and at the same time she conveys both insight and agony. And, her writing is so tightly structured...the opposite of "messy."

    Finally, sounds like Susan Shapiro's class would be an invaluable one to take when I return to New York!!

  • I have another view of super-traumatic scribblers.  They resemble hypochondriacs who complain constantly as their major way to get attention until, like the boy who cried wolf, people just tune them out. I prefer fiction and memoir that reach some resolution or conclusion useful to other people

  • Susan Shapiro

    Let me know what you think of the pieces. So far from what I've heard,  Aspen, Gisselle, Alex and Lavanya have been contacted by agents and book editors. "The Reckoning," the first piece Kenan ever wrote, was the NYT Magazine and Best American Travel Writing 2012. Since English isn't his first language I agreed to help him coauthor his memoir THE BOSNIA LIST, which a WME agent sold to Viking, coming out next year... 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Ha ha. Thanks, Sue!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Sue. Please do! I'm sure the SW community would love it. Thanks!

    @Kasey, I totally agree with you. And there are a lot of these really crazy confessional-style memoirs that do really really well but they get slammed by reviewers. I have worked with authors for whom that is true. You have to have SUCH a thick skin. Those that are handled with nuance are generally the timeless well-loved memoirs. I think this is true of Drinking, A Love Story; Autobiography of a Face; Jesus Land; and a number of others that have stood the test of time.

  • Susan Shapiro

    I'm on book deadline now and have to read 15 memoirs for the NBCC awards (most of them very dramatic) but when I have time I'm going to link some of the great pieces. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Hi again, @Sue. I don't think you implied that you pile on every bad thing that ever happened to you, but the focus on trauma, the way you wrote it, felt a little like this----like bring it on, fast and furious. I wrote a counterargument specifically to caution writers to be nuanced, because just as your troubles and problems can draw a reader to you, they can also alienate. I experienced this a lot as an editor, so that's my point. A person who doesn't have a firm grip on why they're writing their story, and only does so to get published, can fall into thinking that it's the trauma or awful experiences they've had that makes they're story saleable, but it's not that. I think there are too many memoirists trying to sell their traumatic memoirs, but they're not healed yet. That's my main point. I'm fully on board with your assignment and think it's a great exercise. I think for those writers who struggle with how far to push the envelope, it's SUCH a good idea to do something like this and then see where it lands. But not every writer is comfortable with what ends up on the page, and then they need to have some sense of whether or not it's good for them to try to publish that piece. There are consequences to being out there with your misery and/or transformational memoir. But hey, it's obvious you're doing something right! Thanks, Sue.

  • Kasey Arnold-Ince

    Hi, Brooke,

    I note your comment twoard the bottom that we live in a "confessional society," which fosters a readership for misery memoir.  That, along with our cult of "reality celebrity" makes airing one's laundry--with a blow-by-blow of each stain and fray--very rewarding.  The other element at play in some of this trauma olympics is the narcissistic bent of our culture: for some, I'm-a-victim" one-upmanship is part of a larger "look at me" demand. 

    As you point out, the memoirs that are most satisfying are those written by someone who's had the experience, whatever it is, and come out the other side with something valuable to share.  Plus, not all memoir have to be about trauma and horrors to be successful.  (At least, I hope not!)

  • Susan Shapiro

    Thanks.  I wasn't implying you should pile on every bad thing that ever happened to you.  Please check out some of the 20 essays by my students  the New York Times published this year. They are pretty focused,  usually revolving around one scene/theme, filled with beautiful specific details and ending with transformations and insights. We discuss themes before someone starts to write. If a student starts throwing out too many subjects, I'll stop them and we'll figure out what the focus should be. I line edit every piece carefully, sometimes several times.  (I'm an excellent critic -had my own book column for years and I'm on the board of the NBCC.) Many newspaper and magazine editors tell me if they are in a crunch they will pay attention to pieces by students first, because they know the pieces will be smart, interesting  and rewritten many times and the right word length. And many book editors and agents I know who read the great pieces I post on  Facebook email me to get in touch with the authors. Most of the books published have been terrific too, one was a Notable Times book last year. I wish people wouldn't make such bizarre  negative assumptions about the quality of the work WITHOUT READING A WORD OF IT,  based on the very first essay I assign the first day of my class. My rule is "You can do anything as long as it works" and this has worked better than any other assignment I've ever heard about for twenty years. 

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    Thanks for your comment, Sue. I'm sure you're right that this is the easiest way to get noticed. Publishers certainly to talk about courting controversy, since it's so hard to get noticed out there. So much competition across all genres. My issue is just around tempering, because I think some people think that the more they pile on, the more of a "story" they have to tell. I hear this all the time with my own students/writers: that their lives are full of all of these things, but they don't know how to deliver it in a way that's an unfolding. And in a query letter or in a proposal, laying all the trauma out for the agent or editor can feel off, or sensationalistic, or unhealed. I saw countless proposals like this at Seal. In the meantime, I appreciate your response here and getting all this good attention for memoir!!

  • Brooke Warner Outlining

    @Danica, Congratulations! Thanks for all your smart comments, everyone. So much insight and groundedness here.

  • Medea Isphording Bern

    I've taken to calling all of these tortuous tales 'trauma porn' and just can't read any more of it.  Particularly when a good bit of the trauma is self-inflicted (really-who goes on a multi-mile hike with boots that don't fit properly?)  I've been fortunate to share a writing group with a couple of women who are writing memoir that, despite being tragic, gives the reader a sense of light and strength, coupled with perspective that shows they understand the world is not their personal satellite.  We all have pain and heartache.  What constructive thing we choose to do with it-that is the story I'm eager to read.

  • Carla Burke

    You hit the nail on the head! It is so true that as memoir writers we must have enough distance from the painful event to be able to write about it.

  • Danica Davidson

    Thank you, Brooke. This was really interesting to read, especially because I've been thinking about memoir lately.  I recently published my first personal piece at MTV, and since I'd never published anything personal like this before, it was a little nerve-racking. It does talk about some "miserable" stuff, but I didn't write it for anyone to feel sorry for me. I wrote it because I wanted to spread a message of self-acceptance.

  • Pamela Fender

    I certainly hope that my newly published book Beside Myself: Recovery From My Family Betrayal and Estrangement is not considered a "misery memoir." Yes, I lived through some difficult times, some similar and some different from many. However, I did recover and am still recovering, which is an ongoing process.

    I hope to shed some light on many different behaviors and personalities and offer inspiration to those who have experienced family traumas and dramas.

  • Susan Shapiro

       Thank you for the mention of my essay and  books! I actually love the controversy, which landed me on NPR this week and led to  hundreds of emails,  calls, tweets and facebook inquiries from strangers all over the country who want to take my classes and seminars. I'd guess it's because my "instant gratification takes too long" method makes me  one of the few writing teachers out there who focus on how to break into the competitive writing business, even in a lousy economy. Fifty percent of students in my classes get a clip, job, internship or agent by the end of the class and many undergrads are taking it for credit and not yet ready to submit work. 

        To clarify, I don't teach poetry or fiction classes or even memoir classes, nor do I teach a class on how to win a Pulitzer Prize for your great American novel.  Since 1993 I've taught popular 15 week  feature journalism classes for adult education programs, MFA students and undergraduates  called "Writing for NYC Newspapers and Magazines." The goal of the class is to "write and publish a great piece by the end of the class" or to get a job, internship or literary agent.  While I give 15 voluntary assignments (book reviews, profiles, q & a's, service pieces, pitch letters, cover letters), I have found that the most popular  is the humiliation essay and they contain - by far - the best writing. Some students bring in their essay rewrite every week and ignore all the other third-person assignments.  Over the years it became very clear that  the quickest  way to break into top newspapers,  magazines or webzines  is with a great, dramatic  person essay, perhaps because it takes longer to teach news writing and reporting (which I used to do at the NYU Journalism School.) And there happens to be some fantastic editors out there who are willing to give  new, young, fresh voices a platform.  

        About twenty  students or former students I helped with personal essays broke into the New York Times last year and several were approached by top literary agents they are now working with.  Not one piece was an upbeat, light slice of life.  Look up some of the intense, brave and beautiful essays and judge for yourself: Emillio Mesa,  Aspen Matis, Alex Miller, Gisselle Perez, Danielle Gelfand, Kenan Trebincevic, Dmitry Iyudin, Sarah Gerard, Sarah Herrington, Doreen Oliver,  Liza Monroy,  Kimberlee Auerbach, Jeff Nishball,  Judy Batalion, Lavanya Sunkara, Dorri Olds, Merrill Black, Alexandrea Ravenelle. 

       I never said this is the way everyone should write or teach or edit.  I said this is the way I do it that gets the best, quickest results.  Some teachers and editors encourage  experimental work. Some beginning writers have rich parents or spouses or trust funds and don't have to pay attention to what editors want or  market considerations or how many years they can afford to keep taking classes. That's not my story and it isn't the case of most of my students. They don't want to stand in the sidelines or be told how many years or decades of writing it takes to get a paycheck and an impressive byline.  They don't want to keep gathering rejection slips for boring work that doesn't spark an editor to say yes. The reason my classes and seminars are so exciting is because I spill all the secrets that have allowed me to have an exciting career for thirty years. I have 55 students who have published books I admire (in many genres)  within the last 6 years, with advances between $5000 and $500,000. 

         These are the kind of essays and memoirs I write and read and enjoy. Some of my favorite recent nonfiction writers are Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Dave Carr, Nick Flynn, Daphne Merkin, Augusten Burroughs, Dave Eggers,  Koren Zailckas, Cheryl Strayed, Darin Strauss, Phillip Lopate,Katha Pollitt, Azar Nafisi,Ellen Forney, Anthony Shaddid, Alison Bechdel, David Sedaris  and Mira Bartok (who won the NBCC memoir award I voted for last year.) Read and decide for yourself.