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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Coming Out of the Dark

[Dear Readers: My colleague Erin Hosier has been knocking out some amazing pieces over on She Writes. I’m including her latest in full here because I think it’s the best piece on memoir that I’ve seen a very long time.]


Dear Erin Hosier,

My name is REDACTED and my memoir is titled Life’s Not Fair. I grew up with a father who idolized Hitler and turned out to be a pedophile. As a child I blocked out memories that he molested me. When I was a teenager the police raided our home because he had child porn on his computer. My mother has paranoid schizophrenia and our father refused to let us see each other for about a decade. At school I was tormented by bullies and at home I lived in poverty and filth. My sister and I ran away from home and spent time in juvenile detention as teenagers. My little brother committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart because he became delusional and thought it would save our father’s life. My little sister died of alcohol poisoning after choking on her own vomit. My siblings were both in their twenties when they died. I have also personally struggled with an addiction to marijuana and alcohol.

I married a man who began using meth, started hallucinating and became physically abusive towards me while I was pregnant. We have two small children together. At that point in my life I spent a lot of my time going to clubs and bars, getting drunk and cheating on my husband with random men. I was under so much stress I had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental hospital for the third time in my life. Our two children were taken by CPS and placed in foster care. Currently I am homeless and trying to get them back from the state. I have had other readers and writer read my story and I was told I have a very unique voice and story. I believe that one day this book will be on the New York Times Best Seller List and that anyone who sends me a rejection letter will one day regret it because this is the kind of story that I can see being made into a movie and making a great deal of money.

There is not another book out there like this one, but I can relate to stories like Glass Castle and Angela’s Ashes.
I really hope you will consider representing me. Would you be willing to review a few sample chapters?



Are you still reading? My editor thought I should cut this letter down because it’s so depressingly raw, that you’d get the gist after the first paragraph and probably get turned off, but I wanted to keep it as is since that is precisely the point of this post.

Because I’ve sold a few memoirs, or maybe just because I’m an agent, I get letters like this every day. You’d think this was an extreme example, but unfortunately it’s not. Last week another query promised its author’s story would be “realer than Precious.” Something about the writer’s tone irritated me (it’s not a contest!) and I deleted the emailed letter unread and finished my bagel. Who was she to say that her experiences were “realer” than anyone else’s, even as she was referencing a fictional character? And then there are the true stories like the one above. A person so victimized by life itself that she probably can’t consider the humor in a title such as “Life’s Not Fair.” But Erin, Mistress of Darkness, why should every book have a silver lining? Why does everything difficult need to be tempered with humor or self-deprecation if we’re talking about pedophilia, suicide, poverty and mental illness? The answer is it doesn’t…unless you want your story to actually be published.

And another thing: I don’t think there’s a person reading this who hasn’t come face to face with at least three of the myriad of horrors the writer mentions above in her query. Life isn’t fair, and thanks to Oprah we all know it. And while I’m sorry we live in a world as cruel and unfair as we do – of course I am, every day – I can not even begin to imagine how I would pitch such a story to editors. It’s not that your life sounds like such a total bummer, it’s that it only manages to get worse. Where is the lesson? Where is the story? Where is the hope? And what is the point?

Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That’s just human nature and the American way. We don’t mind if you were forced to bear your father’s child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better. But above all, you need to be a better writer than any of the other People With a Horrifying Life Story. And you need to remember what books are for.

Here’s how this query letter can be fixed: If you’re writing your own story, please know the difference between autobiography and memoir. In general, only really famous people like presidents and rappers can get away with telling us the whole story of their lives. That’s an autobiography. But for the most part, memoir is about one aspect of one’s life. That’s how Mary Karr or Augusten Burroughs or Koren Zailckas can get away with writing more than one memoir – they’ve built an audience on voice and trust and for better or worse their sales tracks enable them to do it again, usually focused on another time or set of life circumstances. But that’s what’s key: voice and trust. If readers didn’t respond to the over-the-top coming-of-age story of Augusten being raised by his crazy mother’s crazy shrink in Running With Scissors, they wouldn’t have clamored for his addiction memoir, Dry. And he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to publish it.

A memoir is a personal story, but it’s written for a reader. It’s great if the author experiences some kind of catharsis out of the process of writing her book, but there’s all kinds of writing that can aid in catharsis, and therefore publishing should not be the ultimate point. Personal writing – the kind that heals – need not be made into a movie. A memoir is for the reader, the person who can relate but could never quite put their story into words. It’s for the reader who always wanted to know what “that” would be like. It’s for someone else’s enlightenment but more often their entertainment. Memoirs these days are often centered around an “issue.” That’s not an accident. Large groups of literate people share issues.The key word in that sentence is “share” – it’s not all about the writer, it’s about the community of readers willing to buy a book.

In the best memoir pitches, the author clearly has enough distance from her story to be able to tell it with clarity and humor. The writing doesn’t have to be funny, it just has to understand the necessary balance between lightness and darkness. Unlike in this letter, there has to be a reprieve from the pain every so often. You have to be aware that the reader is not your therapist, even as they are a witness, and that in every tragedy or dark time, there’s hope or goodness or art at the end of the process. A good writer can write about anything – I really believe that. They just can’t write about everything at once.

66 Responses

  1. Wow, this is actually something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. I don’t write memoir, but I’ve been around a few people who do and it’s made me wonder why so many people think their lives are worthy of a book. That sounds harsher than I mean it to, but it seems like they are all writing about the same thing, and their experiences aren’t even as dramatic as the letter above.

    I think what Erin has written very succinctly wraps up the conclusion I was slowly coming to.

  2. Great post. I’m switching blogs 🙂

  3. I follow Erin on SW. Awesome article worthy of rereading and a wider audience. Almost makes me want to write memoir. But my anger has cooled to empathy. It sucks to make mistakes you can’t take back.

  4. This is great advice. I will take this to heart as I work on my memoir.

  5. Perfect, Erin.

  6. I totally agree.
    But why include Trollope’s Autobiography? It’s a different genre entirely and a book that every writer should read because it shows that writing is a task, a job that doesn’t wait on inspiration?

  7. Also…I really love picturing Betsy sharing the same work space with a Secret reading cheerleader.

  8. I think what motivates people like the writer of that letter is the notion that suffering is, in itself, ennobling. They believe that the experience of misery must be, in itself, redemptive, and then they write autobiographies/ self-hagiographies. I guess their readers are like-minded people, consumers of vicarious experience, assuming that they do read (aren’t they usually too busy going to theme parks or on cruises?).

    To heathens like me, misery is more than un-holy — it’s also so damn boring, and conformist. Happiness is such a radical, unlikely response to life — even maintaining a mildly cheerful outlook is a hugely creative accomplishment worthy of a book-length narrative (to answer the questions What are books for? What makes your life worth a book?).

  9. Maybe this just needs a new title: ‘The Chamber Pot: Here Comes Life Again, Shitting in the Delicate Porcelain of My Soul.’

    The problem is that nobody buys ‘Moderately Cheerful: The Story of an Overweight Shlub Who’s Not Nearly as Unhappy as He Pretends.’ And it’s a compelling read, too. The chapter about how I prefer pepperoncini on my eggplant subs is some of my best work.

    Victimization sells. Not only because watching one of Life’s Premier Losers get held down and fucked in the ass by the entire space-time continuum is entertaining on any number of levels, but because victimization = moral purity. As the abuse descends into unexplored depths of filth and degradation, the victims are elevated to greater heights of saint-like perfection, stripped of responsibility and agency until they stand before us in naked glory. Bleeding from any number of orifices, true, but still glorious. Ask Jesus.

    Dear Ms. Hosier:

    In the second grade, I convinced my class to name our guinea pig ‘Adolf,’ because of his adorable little mustache. In the fifth grade, I filled an entire My Little Pony notebook with swastikas, and the month after starting seventh grade, my father was arrested for possession of kiddie porn featuring blonde children in SS uniforms.
    My name is Zyklon B, and this is my story.

    • After reading this, it occurred to me: could Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called “It” have been the ultimate send-up of the “victim memoir” sub-genre?

      I remember reading Sybil in my pre-teens; it vied with softcore porn novels for my riveted attentions. I thought life couldn’t get any worse for a child, but then Dave Pelzer came along. Considering he’s been accused of making the story up, maybe the book was a (profitable) joke.

      • I’ve wondered about that, too. Of course, I don’t think it matters. I never understood the kerfuffle about Million Little Pieces. Who cares if it’s true–if you’ve got the chops, you’ve got the chops.

        In my darker moments, I consider writing a thriller based on right-wing paranoid. The number on the back of your Social Security Card indicates which British bank owns you as chattel, the Mexicans are annexing the US into greater Azatlan, if you perform certain legalistic convolutions you become a sovereign ‘citizen,’ etc. Glen Beck would personally sell a million copies. I guess I’ll hold off until I see what college tuition looks like when my kid’s a teenager.

        And remember that ‘satanic ritual abuse’ hysteria? What ever happened to that? I always liked that one.

  10. Yep, life sucks. Physical abuse, sodomy, rape, murder, duct taped and held hostage…on and on. The thing is you still have to get up and do the dishes. You still have to make food, scrub the toilets, vacuum the floor. And the best part about vacuuming is that you get to suck away all the dirt, I mean every little piece. Mmmm what satisfaction! OCD intact–life is good again.

  11. Well, sure, commenters (Jen, Vivian, August, I’m looking at YOU), pig pile on the memoir. Here’s the thing (Betsy and Erin, hope you’ll back me here), crappy writers abound in all genres. And, in my (admittedly limited) experience, it’s the crappiest of writers who are the squeaky, egotistical wheels (my book is better than Twilight! and! the Bible! and Harry Potter! Combined!). The current obsession with memoir seems congruent with the reality craze that suffuses other media: TV, blogs, etc. But, and this is regardless of the genre, it’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. (I didn’t say that, btw, V.S. Pritchett said it, referring to memoir, but it’s easily applied to the hordes of people who have that killer idea for a novel/screenplay if they only had the time to sit down and write the thing, or, um, are 10,000 words into their blockbuster fantasy novel and seeking representation). That said, it’s not the “art of publishing,” it’s the “business of publishing,” and the business of publishing responds to the demand of the public. So, the demand for memoir is up, and all the would-be writers who, in a different climate, might be attempting the Great American Novel are instead turning their limited talent and attention span to memoir and, like you said, Erin, who doesn’t have three or more of those horrors in her arsenal?

    And then there’s the instant gratification of email and Microsoft Word. If we all had to peck it out on an Olivetti and waddle down to the post office every time we wanted to send a query, we’d be having a completely different conversation, don’t you think?

    It’s all relative. If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

    • Didn’t mean to pile on. I agree, it’s all in the writing. I mean, victimization isn’t the -only- thing that sells. It’s just the thing that sells memoir.

      In fact, my Zyklon B query, in addition to being an attempt to make my mother roll over in her grave, was my idea of how you’d write that very same query -well-.

      And I wonder why I don’t earn out.

    • Numerous valid points, here (and I love — “Combined!!” One thing, reading this makes me think of an observation which has surfaced in my mind more than once — references are made to “public demand.” The “demand of the public.”
      When I hear someone in the media refer to “public demand” I often think, ‘I am a member of the public, and I have not demanded ANY of this….”
      When we say “demand of the public” are we actually referring to “Stuff A Corporation Believes It Can SELL To The Public”?
      (Maybe this is what one of my English professors at BU called, “a nice distinction.”)
      just a thought

    • Hey, I never said I was against all memoir. I just have spent a lot of time wondering what makes people think that certain elements of their lives are so unique, when it seems to be the same as what everyone else is writing – generally some sort of mild violence in their childhood.

      These are new, aspiring writers I’m talking about also, who talk constantly about why they can’t get their books published. It was merely an observation, not a diss on the genre.

    • I’m digging it.

  12. Art ‘s not an overwrought masochistic substitute for the road not taken–a harder private trip to mental health–true enough. But, art does need emotional weight. And it isn’t owned by memoir. Literature, in my opinion, is not and never has been, genre based. Many if not most great novels are in their bones autobiographical—some funny, others profane, all mind tripping cultural travelogues, time capsules, conventional or otherwise—whether dark or light in subject matter— describing inevitable loss. No matter the MacGuffin, I’ll keep reading if the prose is awesome and the dilemma is real to me. Nothing proscriptive. Never how-to. And never larded with hate.

  13. “But, art does need emotional weight. And it isn’t owned by memoir.”

    That’s a sweeping generalization, true, perhaps of the work that peppers the NYT bestseller list, but not the “literary” writers who have been working in the genre since Augustine in the 4th century. And I use the word genre without pejorative connotations, merely to mean “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” There are so many spectacular memoirs that, without question, fall into the category of literature and you’re doing yourself a literary disservice to dismiss the genre out of hand.

  14. Wow, I sound like an asshole. But the sentiment stands.

    • I would never dismiss memoir, or any other genre. Simply stating that it is not the owner of literary emotion, though currently the most popular. Kind of like some kids are popular in high school but don’t do that well in the forties.

  15. Isn’t calling something devoid of literary emotion dismissive? Are we having a semantic disagreement at this point? And the other thing, the popular kid thing, I don’t understand what that means.

    What’s “literary emotion?” Your initial post said memoir doesn’t hold emotional weight. I’m not even willing to argue the absurdity of that statement, but I’d bet the farm you’ve never read: any of Mark Doty’s amazing memoirs, but especially Heaven’s Coast; any of Lauren Slater’s work, but especially Lying; either of Nick Flynn’s memoirs; J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood; Rick Moody’s The Black Veil; Abigail Thomas’ A Three Dog Life and Safekeeping; Michael Ondaatjie’s Running In The Family; Judith Moore’s Fat Girl, William Styron’s Darkness Visible; Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Note’s; Rick Bragg’s All Over But The Shouting; Paula Fox’s Borrowed Finery; Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments; John Bayley’s Elegy For Iris, D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land and, of’ course, our Betsy’s own Food And Loathing. And that’s just for starters. I defy you to read ANY of those books and argue that memoir doesn’t carry emotional weight. In fact, if you give me your address (I’m sure Ask Betsy would be happy to forward it), I’ll send you a CARE package.

  16. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently about the first performance of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis in London, which I was at. The last line of the play, “please open the curtains,” was followed by the actors marching to the wall of the theatre and opening it up onto Sloane Square. All of us in the audience completely lost it. But after the show, Sarah’s agent, Mel Kenyon, told me that Sarah would have found the ending too optimistic, too uplifting, and that she wouldn’t have liked it. She said that Sarah wanted no hope. I disagreed with Mel, but the point is, why does American work have to have the optimism, the uplift, when perhaps none exists? The English seem to have a different attitude, at least in English theatre. Why do we have to have happy endings here? I purposely gave my novel a happy ending to play on this point: the main character is happy, has found himself and God, but is in some sort of asylum in the end. I gave them the happy ending they wanted here. Sarah never compromised and her work was strictly autobiographical. 4.48 was written right before her suicide. She was one of my closest friends.

    • This may not be the place for a theatrical discussion, but I can’t resist a note or two. First, I’d back your opinion versus Mel Kenyon’s, though probably not for your reasons. The text of 4.48 Psychosis is exceedingly vague about production requirements; apart from specifying silences and indicating section breaks, it remains speechless on everything, even the number of voices that should be employed. (You saw it with three performers; I’ve seen it with four and also with one.) Those who knew her may be in a position to estimate what Sarah herself would’ve wanted, but Sarah’s text doesn’t come close to telling a director how to handle the ending, or anything else really. It seems to me that by leaving those questions open, she left us with immense challenges that are also immense freedoms (to put it a bit grandiosely).

      Also, I envy you for having seen that first production, even though I’ve seen two very gratifying stagings (much different from each other) in the States. It’s such a profound play that one would like to have been there when it was unveiled to the world.

      The American taste for uplift and optimism is a big question. The nervy confidence of the Enlightenment thinkers who shaped America’s founding as a country probably figures in, and the youth of the nation (it seems to lose its innocence repeatedly and somehow recover it again, as though unwilling to grow up), and maybe even the Puritans’ occasional taste for ecstasy. The death of tragedy is a different subject, but one might wonder whether the American spirit could ever have produced King Lear, though it could lend itself to the happy ending that Nahum Tate later imposed on the play.

      But enough of that. Erin Hosier’s remarks remind me, very forcefully, that redemption sells, though she didn’t put it that way. “Stories that inspire” are apt to require a lesson, a transformation, a sense of progress, a movement toward something. I’ll need to keep that in mind.

      • Beautifully said, John, and thanks for responding. I was thinking this evening that I wish there were a delete button here…I wrote that in a burst of enthusiasm and I wasn’t even drinking! But your response made me glad that it’s still there. Yeah, that performance was one I won’t forget…I saw the tour also…here in Brooklyn with the original scenery, but they didn’t have a wall to open at the end. Sarah warned me what she was determined to do, and though I tried to convince her otherwise, do it she did. But she left 5 gems behind her for us all.

  17. CJ did not say memoir is “devoid of literary emotion,” or that it doesn’t carry emotional weight.

    • She/he said: “…art does need emotional weight. And it isn’t owned by memoir.” And “it [memoir] is not the owner of literary emotion.” “Devoid” was my paraphrase of “not the owner of.” I’m not trying to be incendiary, I’m trying to converse about a genre I feel very passionate about. Sometimes my passion reads as stridency.

      • Your paraphrase was not accurate.

      • So you’re saying that “not the owner of literary emotion,” when used in the context CJ did, doesn’t mean without literary emotion? Am I just being obtuse? And, really, trickybastard? You’re usually so opinionated? Is your only comment on this topic that I inaccurately paraphrased another commmenter?

      • Shanna, you’re impassioned defense of memoir is great, but I’d say you’re paraphrasing is not accurate either. Try it in another sentence, another idea.

        Compare: “the US is not the owner of the spirit of democracy” with “the US is devoid of the spirit of democracy.” To not be the owner of something doesn’t mean you don’t possess it at all.

      • I hear you, Tulasi-Priya. You’re totally right. Maybe CJ could clear up his (her?) intention with the statements. Because I read the intent as “devoid,” as it’s laid out in the comments. When CJ said, “art does need emotional weight. And it isn’t owned by memoir,” I read that as “memoir doesn’t have emotional weight.” And, as it pertains to a large number of recent memoirs, I would have to agree. But I also think that memoir can be as rich and emotionally complex as the best fiction. And CJ says no dice, no how, not a chance in hell. CJ, am I wrong here? What say you?

      • Shanna your interpretation of my comment was incorrect. Thank you Tricky for your astute example.

      • It warms my frosty heart to realize that you do, in fact, think that memoir can carry emotional weight. My offer still stands to send you a box of great memoir. Just ’cause I’m cool like that.

      • Thanks Shanna. But one of my hats says Librarian and I have read most of the titles you flung at me.

      • Adorable.

      • To CJ. I can’t take credit for the astute example because it was Tulasi-Priya’s.

      • Thank you Tulasi-Priya

  18. This was invaluable information. As I write I try to keep the, “What’s in this for me?” question forefront. (Of course, me being the reader). It helps keep me focused on the arc of the story.
    Great info!

  19. I am turning in my memoir manuscript on the 16th for publication next summer. This has been a useful bunch of reminders and cautions about a lot of things about my intentions for The Memory Of All That. I really do not want to write about writing a memoir. I want to tell the story I have to tell without captioning and underlining. I do not want to tell you, the reader, what I am telling you, or how I am writing, or how I feel about what I am writing, or about my experience of reading the documents for the first time, discovering x about y and z. I am just going to tell you what happened.

    I judged a literary prize a while ago and there really is a mini genre I have come to think of as Victim at Tinker Creek memoirs. I am proud to say we hgave the award to Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast.

    • Heaven’s Coast is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Not memoirs, books. The language, on a sentence level, on every single page is just breathtaking, and the story is heartwrenching and human and uplifting and delicate and messy and devastating and hopeful and true, all at the same time.

  20. Damn, this is an interesting thread. I think August should get Erin Hosier to be his agent.

  21. The dictionary supports Erin’s comment on the difference between memoir and autobiography (not that anyone here needs this pointed out). In the plural, “memoirs” means “autobiography, ” which most people won’t undertake until they’ve reached a rather late stage in life. When a character in Sondheim’s _Follies_ sings, “I’m almost through my memoirs / And I’m here,” it’s from a perspective looking back across decades. A memoir (singular) is usually a memoir _of_ a particular period or aspect of a life, exactly as Erin said.

    What I really wonder about is the human question behind the query that Erin quoted. If letters like that come in every day, from people who seem not to understand something about the place of books in the world, does Erin have some kind of form-letter response? Her post here would serve pretty well, now that she’s written it. To send someone away untutored on this point would likely guarantee that every other agent in town would get the same query. Granted, it’s not Erin’s job to protect other agents or to teach people what writing means; still, I wonder whether a bit of enlightenment can be shared along with the rejection.

  22. August,

    >>Who cares if it’s true–if you’ve got the chops, you’ve got the chops.

    That opens another can for me. Are most people who buy literary memoirs writers (or frustrated writers)? Are they reading for “the chops,” or do they want to connect with a real person’s real life? If it didn’t matter if it were true, why would a reader choose memoir over fiction? I recall the big stink that erupted over Vivian Gornick’s liberal employment of fictional techniques in her memoir, which I thought was ridiculous. But *technique* isn’t the same as making shit up. I love the former, but the latter takes all the fun, what to speak of meaning, out of memoir for me.

    • Well, I think it might matter if we -know- it’s not true, because the whole conceit is that these things happened. I just don’t think it -really- matters. (Do I know what the distinction between ‘matters’ and ‘really matters’ is? No. I’m talking out my neck.)

      If someone writes a memoir that’s ‘heartwrenching and human and uplifting and delicate and messy and devastating and hopeful’ and pack of lies, well, that’s what the best writers do–invest lies with truth. Aren’t all memoirs fictions? (I know that Betsy, for example, is an offensively self-satisfied Texan shiksa.) If readers take pleasure in feeling a connection to real events of a real person’s life, the author oughtta endorse that lie, too. But this is all smoke and mirrors.

      Hey! Just had a thought. Am I circling around to Krishna Consciousness, here? Isn’t everything illusion, or some such?

      (Note: I’m not quoting Shanna to pick on her. I’m afraid of Shanna. Why? Because cinder blocks.)

      • I don’t think you’re talking out of your neck, unless you considering philosophizing to be such.

        Well, but if it’s all smoke and mirrors, then I’d do well to stick to scripture and forego “mundane” literature completely, which may be the case for me. Then again, there’s your namesake, Augustine, the one who kicked it all off. He’s been on reading lists for, what, six centuries? I’d settle for that.

        So the issue then, for me (and for many readers, I assume), is not whether the story is literally real or true, but how broad and intense a vision of reality and truth it can offer. But as a reader, I still want to know what I’m getting in terms of product, some truth in labeling. I can’t help but care more about Kathryn Harrison or Mary Karr than I do about Elizabeth Bennett, however great a character she is.

        As far as Krishna consciousness goes, it’s funny you brought it up, because I wasn’t thinking of it! But since you did, according to the Vedic cosmology, the material world is not false, but temporary. It’s like an eternal dream, Gardner’s “vivid and continuous dream.” A dream, like fiction (and like memoir), exists, but it’s not reality. So, basically, we’re all living in a collaborative real-time memoir. Or maybe just a cosmicTwitter.

      • You big old liar. You’re not ascared of me. Yes, I think the truth is relative and all memoirs are fictions and I think that if you wouldn’t love a book if you found out it was fiction than the writer isn’t doing a good enough job with the craft on the page. The idea that memoir shouldn’t be held to a literary standard because it’s true is bullshit. But the “literary standard” of the bestseller lists is a whole different conversation anyway. Eww, I said craft.

  23. Why? Isn’t scripture just as smoky as Tale of a Tween Vampire?

    (Spirituality isn’t my strong point; as a kid I read a book that said, ‘You’re already enlightened, you simply aren’t aware that you’re enlightened,’ and I thought, ‘Fuck, yeah! I’m enlightened!’ and stopped reading.)

    I’m trying to think this through. You said that ‘as a reader’ you want to know what you’re getting, but is that right? Strikes me that as a -reader-, the character Elizabeth Bennett is just as real as the character Kathryn Harrison. They’re both words on a page. The fact of Harrison’s existence cannot be found there. Whatever pity or titillation or truth or depth we feel is not generated by the words we’re reading.

    • >>Whatever pity or titillation or truth or depth we feel is not generated by the words we’re reading.

      Then what is generating it? The character, who would be otherwise unknown (if not nonexistent) without those words? Surely not. My mind in response to those words? Is the story merely a mirror of the mind, either the author’s or the reader’s, or both? Wow, this is getting more metaphysical by the moment!

      Does scripture thrill in the same way as literature? It can, but usually its seduction works on new converts or the saintly. For the rest of us, it can be boring at times, more nourishment than titillation. The seduction of mundane lit is a different kind of pull. When you’re really thirsty, only water will satisfy, and will taste best. When you want to stimulate your senses and mind, then wine, single-malt Scotch, and Kool-Aid are sought. To those for whom literature *is* their “salvation,” it’s their water, wine, and bread, almost everything.

      • I’m not being so metaphysical at that! It’s generated by the celebrity of the author.

        An author with zero celebrity, we don’t even know if they’re real or imagined, we feel no different reading about them than about Elizabeth B. The more we know–or think we know–about the real person, the more the emotion resonates. Nothing to do with the words on the page.

        I bet memoirs with author photos do significantly better than those without.

  24. Then I’m hiring a stand-in for mine.

  25. […] Hosier on Betsy Lerner’s blog Coming Out of the Dark. Erin, a colleague of Betsy’s, originally wrote this post for She Writes and it’s re-published […]

  26. I was taking a class on memoir writing–sort of expanding personal essays into something larger–and it was harrowing. No one in the workshop was a writer, they were just people (God Bless Em) with horrible life afflictions and microsoft word. Right in the middle of it, I came across this piece on McSweenyes and it made me laugh out loud. Its a personal essay narrated by a personal essay and its a total parody of tragedy equalling publishing.

  27. I’ve been intrigued by the discussion of truth in memoirs. Probably I should let it alone, but I can’t resist.

    I agree with Shanna on this as far as it goes: “The idea that memoir shouldn’t be held to a literary standard because it’s true is bullshit.” But I also question the converse, the view (to put it bluntly) that memoir shouldn’t be held to a truth standard because it’s literary. Ideally, one finds truth value as well as literary value in a memoir as in other pieces of non-fiction–I do, at any rate.

    We know the ancient Greek and Roman histories are dubious on many points (e.g. the existence of monsters and giants), and that some of them nonetheless contain fine writing, but we still seek to extract elements of reliable truth from them, and even the reports of giants’s bones have served a purpose for paleontologists. Samuel Pepys’s diary is prized for its depiction of his society as well as of his self. We would be saddened to learn (assuming there were no evidence on this issue elsewhere) that Boswell had fabricated Dr. Johnson’s conversation for the sake of entertaining his readers.

    These are pre-modern examples. But the ideal I mentioned still applies, for me at least, despite all the modern and post-modern doubts that have arisen about the veracity of texts. The claim that buyers are, or ought to be, sophisticated about what they’re getting into might be advanced here. But I remember that Goldman Sachs used that claim regarding one of its complex financial products, and against it was advanced the argument that deception may constitute fraud.

    It tells us one thing about the world if James Frey’s Million Little Pieces is true; it tells us something else if it’s not. To alter something Tulasi-Priya wrote, I don’t care more about Mary Karr as a character than about Elizabeth Bennett, but I care differently.

  28. Thanks, Erin. I hear endless people tell me they have a fascinating life and should write their memoir. I always have the same question, usually unspoken: Can you write it worth shit?

    Inherent in that are a couple things: 1) Do you have any talent as a writer, and 2) Do you know how to find the story in this jumble?

    No sign of either in that letter, because it’s all about her–and her as character, not writer. Nice job bringing it back to the reader, and what they want: a good story, with good writing.

  29. Erin: exactly. Well said. Exactly, exactly, exactly. If I taught a course on memoir I would make this essay required reading.

    Personally, this is reason why my own manuscript is taking going on over a decade to complete (let alone become readable)– I was not, until some years ago, finished “living” the experience, let alone had I put the necessary distance between myself and my experience to write about it with any perspective, and so it lacked the sort of authority a reader relies on. It’s a hard thing to admit that one is not yet an authority on one’s own experience, but I think this is exactly what defeats most creative nonfiction– it is written too soon and so it lacks clarity, there is no balance between dark and light– what I think of as suffering (or conflict) and faith (or resolution). For me, I am only begin to realize my own “happy ending” and with it, the strength and agency within myself, the light that was there throughout the darkness. You are exactly right to say that this is what most readers depend on.

  30. Thank you for fleshing out your thoughts on this. I totally agree on your points and appreciated your reminder on the need for there to be a POINT to the writing, not just a sad story. We all need a little hope or a lesson (at least I do if I am paying to read it)!

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