"I've had an interesting life."
"I want to help people avoid the mistakes I've made."
"I want people to know they can survive that stuff."
You wouldn't think these phrases could make my blood run cold, would you? They do
Silver haired ladies packing pink notebooks with stories about their lives, often accompanied by photo albums, cookies, and grandchild-made clunky jewelry are more terrifying than outraged romance writers (don't call romance "bodice rippers" and expect to live) or petrified-by-fear first time authors. They are writers on a mission and they can't believe I'm not going to help them.
For years, I'd stop these writers, as gently as I could (which is to say sometimes it wasn't at all), and tell them memoir was "a difficult category" (as though some aren't) and absent some amazingness like they'd changed a law, forced an investigation, or earned notoriety of the worst sort, these books were not going to sell.
So yes, I said "I can't sell this" to parents of murdered children; to men and women who survived and thrived despite years of abuse; to men and women who had pulled themselves out of the most abject circumstances through sheer determination and strength of will. And if you think it was thoughtless, or dismissive, or that it didn't haunt me, I hope you'd be wrong.
These people came to me with purest of intentions; they didn't want money, or fame. They'd be on Oprah if they had to but all they really wanted was the girls in the coal hollers of West Virginia to know there was life outside of the only place they knew.
They wanted to comfort the sick of heart; encourage those who carried unbearable burdens. They only wanted to help, and they came to me for encouragement and I turned them away. Not easily, not happily, but turned away nonetheless.
I told them to self-publish of course. I had my patter about the value of self-publishing but the underlying attitude was "this isn't important enough for many people to care about or read." And by "this" I was saying to people "your life isn't important enough for people to care about." And to those people who had survived their own apocalypse, it was as if I'd said no greater good will come of your suffering. Not in those words of course, never outright. But they were survivors; they've learned to read what is not said.
This went on for years. More people and more stories than I can calculate. To cover the pain, I indulged ourselves in the only remedy available: laughter. Among agents there is one topic we all groan about and share stories: memoirs.
But all of us hate this situation. We have to say no to so many people, for so many subjective and often irrational reasons (no I can't sell cozy mysteries without a craft theme) that these pure of heart and empty of anything but altruism people broke our hearts. But we are masters at concealing that through joking around, so we did.
It went on for years. Then one day, a small piece fell into place.
I went to the annual conference of biography writers in Washington DC. BIO is a terrific organization filled with serious writers who know how to have fun. I attended several panels, took copious notes, and learned a lot. I soon realized how much biographers depend on written records, and how often those written records are letters.
Letters that have gone the way of the dodo bird in our new electronic world. Yes we still send cards and thank you notes, but when was the last time you got a long chatty personal letter from your auntie in Ireland? And I'm not talking about the Christmas letters that are copied and sent out wholesale to near and dear. Real letters? I can tell you when I got the last one: 1995.
The BIO conference was in 2011. In 2012, the second piece fell into place at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I realized personal memoirs would be the only written records of what it was like to grow up in West Virginia before electricity. Before a lot of things. Someday in the not too distant future, if you want to know what it was like "back then" these memoirs will be the only way to know.
Thus, these memoirs can serve a much greater social purpose than simply memoir. They are the written records of how we lived. It isn't an indulgence to write them. It's a social imperative. There may not be a lot of people who want to read these memoirs. There may only be one. But that one might be a historian doing research in the far distant future and if we want them, those kids of ours, to know what it was like, we have to tell them now.
And with that importance comes a responsibility: the memoirs need to be more than stream of remembrance. They need to be almost a form of reporting. People verifying facts, talking to other people from that time to get alternate view points. A "reported memoir" like The Night of
the Gun by David Carr.
Here's what David Carr says about his book
In one sense, my story is a common one, a white boy misdemeanant who lands in a ditch and is restored to sanity through the love of his family, a God of his understanding and a support group that will go unnamed. But if the whole truth is told, it does not end there. The book will be fundamentally different than a tell-all, or more commonly, tell-most. It will be a rigorously clear-eyed reported memoir in which the process of discovery will be part of the narrative motor...For instance, my brother asked if I was going to give him credit for bailing me out after I was arrested for possession of pot as an 18-yr.-old in a Wisconsin state park. I had not even remembered the incident. You remember the story you can live with, not the one that happened. (italics mine)
I haven't heard anyone else talking about memoir like this yet, so I have a feeling I may be a voice in the wilderness for a while. And there's always the three am fear that I am completely and totally wrong about this. Only time will tell.
But in the meantime, I'm writing a form reply to give to every person who queries me about what I've come to call Non-Commercial Memoir. I hope to encourage them to see the higher social purpose of their work, and encourage them to do the tough work of writing a reported version of their lives.
I'm going to be very interested in how this is received. I do know one thing now: it's a helluva lot better than only saying "no, I can't help you," to people who deserve more.
Originally pubished at
BiblioBuffett on 7/12/2012