Thursday, September 02, 2010

From the Vault: A model for memoirs

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we'd hate to leave you guys hanging.  It's no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we'd bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  We've cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Jessica

Recently I was poking about on the website for This American Life, the altogether brilliant public radio show and now HBO television show that is one of the only things that tempts me toward faithlessness--in thought if not deed--toward book publishing. (Book publishing and public radio—apparently I don’t even fantasize about career-cheating with a high-paying job). In any case, I happened upon their submission guidelines. Although these are tailored to the demands of a radio show with a very distinctive sensibility (anyone who’s never listened should give it a try) they struck me as pertinent to book projects, especially memoir.

Memoir is a tricky category, one that I love but one in which the bar for writing is high and the demand for platform still higher. If you’re not already famous, or a participant in the Real Housewives/Dancing with Stars/America’s Top Model franchises, persuading a publisher to take a chance on your own story can be challenging. Despite the ubiquity of reality shows, not every person poised to write a personal narrative has a tv deal (yet), which means that for those people brave enough to wade into a sodden market that editors politely call “saturated,” not only had you better write very, very, very well, but do so in service of a story in which the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. So how, exactly, does this mathemagical equation work?

I thought This American Life’s submission guidelines came up with a pretty good answer: They write:

"The material we most often reject is writing that lacks a narrative. A lot of it is good, vivid writing, but without a real story to it. Often it's recollections about some person the writer knew, or some time in their own lives. Often there are interesting anecdotes, but without any driving question, or real conflict. There's nothing bigger at issue and nothing surprising revealed. In many of these stories, the characters are all the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning. No one learns anything. No one changes.”

Why yes, I thought.

Elsewhere on the site, in an amusing essay in which she talks about having her own work rejected repeatedly from This American Life, regular contributor Hilary Frank writes; “Specifically, This American Life is looking for stories with two main elements: the narrative action, or plot (in which one thing happens to the characters, and then another, and then another), and moments of reflection (where someone says something surprising about what the story might mean).”

Yes again.

Like most every piece of writing featured on the show, this is well said. They want work that has drama, that surprises, that toggles between the personal and the universal, and is also very, very well written. The fact that many of their contributors—David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Shalom Auslander—are successful published writers seems to indicate that these parameters translate well to the printed page.

Perhaps the model above is not the only one that works for memoirs, but the advice seemed to me well worth sharing. You can check it out in greater (perhaps excruciating) detail at

Originally posted in May 2009.

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