Listen, there are a whole lot of memoirs out there–memoirs of abuse, addiction, recovery, disease, divorce, religion, race, parenting, and just about anything else. Lots of them are great. And lots of them aren’t. But what makes a memoir publishable?
Since it came out a few weeks back, Barbara Walters’ autobiography has sold about a jillion copies. Give or take. I bought one. I ripped through that bad boy like it was a Harry Potter novel and I didn’t want anyone to give away the end. I DVR’ed all of Baba’s press appearances and saved them for after I finished the whole tome. Why? Let’s face it: Babs isn’t the best writer in the universe, but you know what? She doesn’t need to be. Sure, she repeats herself a bit here and there, and she’s a bit overly straightforward. Did that slow me down? Please. This was a book I cancelled plans for. Barbara Walters is one of a very few people who could write their memoirs in Pig Latin, and it wouldn’t matter. The woman has led such an astonishingly fascinating life that once she starts dishing, there’s just nothing better.
Most people, of course, haven’t led quite as fascinating lives, so they need to try a little harder. Memoirs almost always work best when two particular things are going for them: the story being told is incredibly unique, but also, the author is someone you are able to relate to on some level. Take one of my favorite memoirs of the past few years, Jeannette Walls’ THE GLASS CASTLE. Walls grew up with vagabond parents roaming the country before ending up in a shack in Appalachia that she eventually left to move on her own to
The risk with all memoirs is how self-indulgent they can become. I was actually shocked into laughter recently when I saw an ad billing Augusten Burroughs’ THE WOLF AT THE DOOR as “His first memoir in five years!” Really? Five whole years?! How have we made it so far without more personal stories about a guy who…um…what has he done again? Considering Burroughs also writes personal essays for one of the lad magazines and has pumped out about three or four other memoirs about his first forty or so years on earth, it’s particularly distressing that he is only now working his way around to the topic of his father. If he keeps churning out memoirs as fast as he does, I’ll keep an eye out for his incisive take on a grandparent or cousin in five more years.
Of course, Augusten gets to keep writing memoirs because people keep buying his books. I personally don’t understand why. James Frey seems to write with more credibility. But what can you do? The first Burroughs memoir, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, worked because it was a fascinating story, well-contained, and fabulously written. I still didn’t like it, but that’s irrelevant.
So remember: it’s not enough to just be talented, and it’s not enough to just be interesting. If you want to write a memoir, be both. And be relatable. And make sure you can find enough distance from your own life to write objectively. No pressure…
Memoirs really are just about the toughest things to do well. Which just makes it that much more thrilling when they work. Some of my favorites include Lily Burana’s STRIP CITY; Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS; Jean-Dominique Bauby’s devastating THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY; Ann Marlowe’s HOW TO STOP TIME; and Paul Monette’s BECOMING A MAN. I’d include a list of my least favorite (I’m looking at you, Dave Eggers), but why start a fight?
Any of you out there working on memoirs? Have any favorites to recommend?