Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jim McCarthy on what makes a memoir publishable

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 New York and support herself through college. Other than eventually ending up at a university in Manhattan and, uh, having parents, my story and Walls’ bear essentially zero resemblance. But she writes with such grace and accessibility. More importantly, she can work her narrative from two sides: she is able to step far enough away to look at her own life with impressive clarity, acknowledging how it will be perceived by readers. But she also is able to recall (and express) the emotions of those years, the connections to her family, and how she made it through some really tough times.

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?


  1. I like BUFFALO FOR THE BROKEN HEART by Dan O'Brien. I don't read a lot of memoir...I'm not sure if Carol Burnett's is a memoir or an autobiography (because I read it so long ago), but it's pretty amazing either way. It's called ONE MORE TIME.

  2. Yup, working on a memoir. Seeking representation (reading agent blogs). My favorite memoir isn't actually a memoir. I love Antonia White's quartet so so much. Then it's the usual suspects: Annie Dillard, Edmund White. I know pretty much every book Anne Lamott writes is the same book but I like 'em anyway. And I liked Lucy Grealy a whole lot, which made me like Truth & Beauty as gossip though not so much as a memoir.

  3. I love what you said about Burrough's latest. You nailed exactly what I've been thinking. How is a memoir something you publish EVERY FEW YEARS?

    Personally, I'm not a big fan of memoirs. It's too hard to take anything objectively. I do love biographies if the author is credible.

    Okay, I admit I'm just trying to sound smart. I mostly read middle grade and young adult fantasy. Go Percy Jackson!

  4. I love memoirs. Someone gave me a copy of 'The Glass Castle,' but I would have bought it anyway, for the description -- and the cover.

    Flora Thompson's 'Lark Rise to Candleford' and Ian Denys Peek's 'One-Fourteenth of an Elephant' are perhaps my two favorites. The latter took me by surprise. It is definitely not PC, and it is not a comfortable read either, but it is compellingly honest and heartfelt; reading it I got the feeling that the author really wanted to write it -- that not writing it was not an option for him.

    I've been working on my own memoir for longer than I care to remember. I find it such a challenge -- trying to be honest and interesting at the same time.

  5. I liked Teacher Man by Frank McCourt. Then again, I'm a teacher and a Dodger fan, so....

  6. I liked THE GLASS HOUSE and I think if anyone's thinking about writing a memoir they should read it first. For me, I have to like the characters...even the bad ones. And stepping aside so you can view your life objectivley is an important part of the process.

  7. EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. Amazing book, and I mostly read kidlit. Hook: she travels to 3 different countries for 4 months each and learns 3 different things. Plus the voice is touching and funny.

    Also, Howard Dully's MY LOBOTOMY. Wow. About how his family had his brain picked by good ol Doc Freeman in the 1950s. Crazy, good story. Hook: a man who had a lobotomy as a child lives to tell about how it changed his life.

    So no, my life is not that interesting so I won't be writing my own. Great post!

  8. CONFESSIONS OF A FAILED SOUTHERN LADY by Florence King. Hilarious without being snide, and King is a fantastic writer.

  9. Not working on a memoir. Have my parents to thank for that -- comfy upbringing in which my lowest moment was when the sewing machine repair man came to the door (yes, they actually used to make house calls) and called my older sister pretty and my younger one cute. He had no scrap-of-an-adjective to toss my way. I was crushed.

    Come to think of it, maybe I will write a memoir and call it SEWING PAINS.

    Seriously, I loved Baba's memoia, too. She's an amazing woman.

  10. Liar's Club, The Sorrows of Young Werther and anything by M.F. K. Fisher.

    Best ones look through a narrowed lens at life's larger meanings.

    A memoir is not a biography.

  11. Anything by Natalie Goldberg...

  12. Recently read My War by Colby Buzzell, I thought excellent in its honesty and style. Am also working on a memoir of 15 months working as civilian volunteer for the US Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq, injured by IED as unintended exit - most war memoirs bore me or piss me off, seeming either gung-ho ignorant, banal or preachy, and almost all by soldier or journo men ... Makes my own an interesting challenge.

  13. AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD by Annie Dilliard. Come on we can all elate to those revaltions that we have as a child. You know, those certain moments in time when our soul is awakened to the world around us.

  14. Sure have. After reading about it in People Magazine this fall, I found on Amazon a memoir by Sandra Hart called, Behind The Magic Mirror. She was a former Romper Room Teacher who has had a fascinating life revolving around celebrity, mental illness and murder. She was mentioned in People Mag in conjunction with her son, Emerson Hart, former lead singer of Grammy nominated Tonic. I couldn't put it down.

  15. I loved Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, Rick Bragg's All Over But the Shoutin, and Nien Cheng's Life & Death in Shanghai. I gravitate toward memoirs because they can be more accessible, can give you a slice of life that you may not otherwise get to see close up, can be a good way to blend history with sociology and other disciplines, and the writing can be just as top notch as in a good work of fiction.

  16. I am writing a memoir about my marriage to a man from central China in the 1990s and how, despite my background in China studies, I really learned about Chinese culture from him and from my interactions with his family.

    My favorite memoir is "Golden Boy" by Martin Booth. I also enjoy reading memoirs about the Asian experience in the US.

  17. I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir EAT, PRAY, LOVE and really enjoyed it. I laughed, cried, and empathized even when I didn't completely agree with her.

    I am working on a memoir with the working title LIFE IN THE SLOW LANE: FROM BIKER TRASH TO TRAILER TRASH. It is built around a 2 month RV trip we took with my 86-year-old parents, both of whom have dementia and tells of the changes that have occurred in our lives since they came to live with us.

    Do memoirs need to be complete before submission, or like other works of non-fiction, can they be submitted as a work in progress?

    I enjoyed reading your blog. It was very helpful.


    Linda B

  18. First Memoir in five years...? (serious grin)

    Amazingly enough, at 62, I am NOT writing a memoir. (You may all gasp in shock now.)

    While my life is a lot of fun, it is not one that people want to read about. No recovery from this or that addiction, no personal tragedies or horror stories... Only a lot of strange (Was that coincidence or something supernatural?) events in my life that, if written down, would be assumed to be fake and fiction, which would immediately turn people off...

    What to do… What to do…

    I will just have to stick with writing my life into fantasy and science fiction stories and hope for the best. Otherwise, they'd never believe it...

    Hopefully, I will become famous enough that I can tell some of these: "The case of the disappearing salesgirl", "The miracle of the Laying on of Hands" and other strange but true events.

  19. I love memoirs about people who take risks to make a difference in the world and ultimately make you think about how you live your life. THREE CUPS OF TEA by Greg Mortensen is one of those,although it's really an "as told to." The writing is not as fabulous as the story which gets an A+ for adventure, inspiration, and authenticity.

    My memoir, EAGLE ON THE HIGHWAY, is ready to find an agent and I'm trying to figure out how to levitate my query to the top of a slush pile from a rural hideaway in Montana. Barbara Lee

  20. I have just ONE comment. How to find a publisher for my memoirs? I know they are interesting (the memoirs but I suppose the publishers too) and unusual - how much do you know about South Africa after all? City slicker gone farming amongst different cultures and emerging 25 years later with sense of humour not only intact, but possibly sharpened. Who to approach?
    And by the way, my dog has also written his for children - same question applies!