We floundered around for a while trying to pinpoint what I meant.
Here's what I came up with:
Imagine that two thousand years in the future, archaeologists are reconstructing my life. I am a very very famous historical figure because I am both a human being and a shark. Everyone "knows" this because my shark image survived, as did some of my apartment and some of my writing. (Why I am famous is left to your imagination.)
As with all reconstructed lives there are some questions. One thing though that people KNOW is I am a Zoroastrian. They are certain of this because my writing frequently references "platform." Historians have surmised I am a Zoroastrian because Zoroastrians place their dead on platforms (no, really!) to be eaten by vultures and thus returned to the cycle of life. What else could platform mean?
One day the archaeologists discover a cache of odd objects. Paper, bound in leather, indexed***. It looks like a series of lists, arranged by date. Lists of things believed to be food items: pasta, coffee, creamer, Mallomars, cheddar cheese.
There are hundreds of these lists, a real find.
Historians set to work analyzing the new information. They organize the list to see which items appear most often, and the least often. They puzzle over
One clever undergraduate notices that periodically the lists do NOT include coffee or Mallomars. She creates an excel spread sheet to match items with dates.
It soon becomes clear that coffee and Mallomars disappear from the list for about six weeks every spring. The dates are not consistent but the six week time period is.
The undergraduate, keen on finishing her thesis, graduating and running off to Antarctica for a beach holiday (hello, global warming) digs around diligently. She consults tide tables, weather patterns, election results, bail bonds records, astrology charts, and casting calls from Pixar Studios.
Soon she realizes the six week period is always linked to the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.
Wait a second. Isn't that the period a small sect of Christians known only as "cat-licks" called Lent, and observed by giving up things. Things like coffee and chocolate?
But we know she's Zoroastrian, everyone knows that.
Except maybe not.
This casts a whole new light on things. It's a very SIGNIFICANT discovery because it challenges a long held belief.
And if platform doesn't mean Zoroastrian platforms, then what does it mean? Well, that's a topic for a graduate thesis, hello Antarctica here I come.
And that in a nutshell (or a grocery bag) is what a non-fiction book proposal must explain: why this book is significant. Why it matters.
You can have the cache of grocery lists, but you have to tell me why it's significant. You can have a great story but you have to be able to explain why it's important. "It's my life" is not the correct answer.
This is where most personal memoir fails the "is this publishable" test: most lives are not significant. They may be interesting (or at least I hope they are to the people who lived them) but it's rare to find a memoir that includes something that is significant to a large group of people.
***no, I do not really print, index and bind my grocery lists, all reports to the contrary.