Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thoughts on Memoir

I mentioned Marc McCutcheon's book about nonfiction writing in my last post. He also tackled the topic of memoir, citing the Delany sisters' memoir, Having Our Say (which sold more than a million copies), as an example of how non-celebrity memoirs are a "fabulous niche that shows little sign of fizzing out."

He was right on the mark. Just like reality TV (I know--some of you hate it), the non-celebrity memoir celebrates the ordinary Joe, even while we Americans are still so desperately obsessed with the rich and famous. And in 2009 the well is far from dry.

But take A Gift from Brittany by Marjorie Price, a watercolorist with a following but, arguably, not a celebrity. She submitted one of the cleanest, most polished manuscripts I've seen. It follows her to Paris, where she falls in love with a Frenchman, marries him, and buys an old, sprawling home in the French countryside. But that's not the gift, exactly--the gift is her daughter, the product of a love that eventually ends in divorce. But as Price's marriage dissolves, her love for her community and the French landscape solidifies. I was privileged to proofread this book, and it is an example of how tragedy; deep, personal detail; and perseverence make for a very satisfying read.

Quite different, for me, was Rachel Simon's Building a Home with My Husband. Though Simon shows a command of language and is well organized, I found her book about the travails of renovating a home to be a bit whiny and probably a far cry from Riding the Bus with My Sister, which follows Simon and her disabled sister and the lessons learned by riding buses all day.

The difference in these books may have something to do with what my friend Ellen Roberts teaches in her memoir classes: A successful, well-thought-out memoir has more to do with how long it cooks in your head than on paper.

Here are few other things that good memoirs have:

  1. History - History can be used effectively when you've been touched by a historically significant event (like war), but it's also effective when you harness the power of your own history (like Price did), not just the bigger events around you.

  2. Sin - Yes, I'm talking sex and violence. It always sells, and I myself have a fascination with Mafia dons, drug addicts, and otherwise self-destructive humans.

  3. Conflict and tragedy - The musician Sting once said (and I'm taking liberties with his actual quote) that conflict, sadness, depression, and separation lend themselves well to songwriting. The same is true of bigger writing projects, as Sting explores in his own memoir, Broken Music. But, for me, the big payoff is when the protagonist survives and triumphs over the conflict and tragedy.

  4. Great writing and/or great storytelling - Sometimes a book might fall short of being beautifully written or well edited, but the reader will forgive those slights if the story is compelling. For many women, who are by far the primary book buyers in America, a compelling character goes a long way.

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