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Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

 

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I was approached by a writer at a conference this summer. He asked me if I thought his memoir would ever get published. Then he told me about his life, “basically a rags to riches story.” Then he told me that he’d been working with a ghost writer, only that didn’t work out so he hired an independent editor. What did I think? What were his chances? I thought that the book had basically no chance of getting published (unless he planned to self-publish). Memoirs by famous people are ghostwritten, but memoirs otherwise need to be written by real writers. It’s not the story, it’s the writing that distinguishes a memoir, the literary merits, often taking years to develop and hone. Most first time writers don’t seem to realize that.

What would you have told him?

 

18 Responses

  1. My friend.
    Writing is not about the story ~ it’s about writing. Pure but not simple. There are millions of love stories or war stories or coming of age stories. What makes some bring us to our knees ?
    The writing.
    Otherwise there would be no reason to read. No pleasure that we couldn’t get from an adterschool special. Given md an apt word or a lovely phrase or … nothing. Nada. Niente. Rien.

  2. Forget the riches. Write about the rags, a moment in time that opened up some door. I’m sure it’s in there, but finding it might be hard. And if the door is closed, break it down.
    When I read this post, I thought of “Angela’s Ashes.” From the first sentence on, I heard Frank McCourt’s Irish voice. You’re right –It’s the writing that distinguishes the power of the word..

  3. Guy sounds like an egomaniac.

  4. Agree, it’s one thing to get a writing coach/editor to partner with you on the structure and get you to go deeper into the writing. It’s another thing to have someone else ghostwrite your book. I believe the depth of the memoir will be missing and he may have bypassed the healing that comes with moving through the actual writing. The reader will feel something is missing. He may want to consider rewriting his memoir without the ghostwriter.

  5. He’s not a writer. He’s in love with his own story. How many times have I heard someone tell me they had an amazing story, or could write a book, or wish they could write it, or I should write their story, blah blah, blah… Of course it has to come from within, somewhere painful, or jubilant, or remarkable, or unsettling, or restorative. Maybe he does have something to impart, unique and rare. Or not. But he has to dig deep and find the words and the passion.

    • Exactly! A “good story” is never enough. You gotta have good writing, structure and voice. But I’ve met too many people who don’t know this basic premise.

  6. There are ghosts who write? I did not know that.
    In summer, I often trade-in my city fire escape bed/desk to write in a 235 year old attic. I’ll be on the lookout.

  7. There is always someone I can hire to wash my floors, raise my kids, cook my meals or hell, I can hire a hooker to satisfy my husband, (ewww), but write my memoir, no f-in way. No rags to riches here, no conquering adversity, no miracle cures, just splaying my life from the heart, with a pencil in my hand and a laptop on my desk.
    I would tell the guy that seeking the magic of your words, from someone else’s heart, will not do your story justice.
    Everybody has a story.
    It’s the writing stupid.

  8. Write it yourself for sure (or don’t.) Not to get too cozy, but I’m at 43% in “Ambivalence, a love story,” and up to this point the vocabulary has been holding me on the ground and punching me in the face, but tonight I read “I go to the library to research miscarriages but instead read disgusting dead baby jokes…” In context, that is funny and sad and endearing all at once. Now I want to lift my head and read on. Is that just good writing or something else? So, of course, a good story and good writing but it seems there is something else I don’t have the words for. I want to say the essence of something else, and it is probably a subjective something else. I might just be describing good writing and over-thinking it. But there are lots of famous writers I can’t read. Good story good writing but not for me. If he had asked me, I would have said, “What, are you famous or somethin’?”

  9. “What would you have told him?”

    Much the same.

  10. How about those Red Sox?

  11. This post brought back a recollection of a peculiar encounter during a writing seminar I attended several years ago. An elderly man walked in, toting a thick bundle of dog-eared paper. He sat towards the back of the room; spent much of the morning watching the other attendees as though we were fish in an aquarium. During a break, he approached the group where I was sitting. We learned he had been chronicling his unusual memoirs as a soldier in WWII. He had come to this seminar in search of someone to take his notes and create a manuscript from them. He never said the words “ghost writer”, but that was the task.

    The way he was asking people to write his memoir was the least problematic: his thick, Germanic accent was at odds with his claims of fantastic adventures to avoid fighting for the Axis powers. Since I seem to be a magnet for these types of folks, he followed me about the room for a good 10 minutes, pleading with me to write his story. My only defense- besides being an unpublished fiction writer – was to insist he contact the National WWII Museum, since they collect war-time memoirs.

    At the end of the seminar, a woman he claimed was his daughter met him at the door. Never saw him again; my friends at the Museum don’t recall him contacting them, either. The incident bothers me, though I’m not sure if it’s from the possibility that his notes would have become The Story or from the possibility that I met a former Nazi soldier.

  12. Random factoid. Did you know a baby robin out of its nest too early will go absolutely still, essentially freeze in place – even if you pick it up and put it somewhere safe – as if it hopes you can’t see it.

    “What would you have told him?” I know you’re looking for a smidgen of hope, but what you really want is to write well. That’s what you should pursue, not affirmations, and if you pursue that, then yes, you might have a chance one day.

  13. “It’s tough. Good luck.”

  14. Start a blog. Write a screenplay. Write a country song. Write a novel that ends up becoming a few short stories. Apply to an MFA program. Get accept to said program. Get told your story is “not interesting.” “If you come here, you want to write like us. Didn’t you get the memo?” Have a writer you’ve admired for a very long time read a paragraph from your ms and fake vomit. Spend every residency in hiding, praying for it to be over quickly. Listen to your peers say foolish things about your writing. Say foolish things about their writing. Lie awake on the uncomfortable cot in your dorm room wishing you hadn’t said those foolish things. Get a diploma. Then, go write that memoir and see what happens. Self-publishing a memoir makes me a little queasy, but that’s just me.

    As my grandmother used to say: That and $1.95 might buy you a cup of coffee.

  15. I would have told him it’s unlikely his book would be traditionally published. Then it would be up to him to decide if my opinion has any credibility.

  16. If he could turn his story into a How To book, he’s gold.

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