As I have been doing for decades, I attended the Writers' League of Texas annual Agents & Editors Conference. If you're a writer who is eager to learn more about the craft and business of the publishing industry, this conference is one of the best thanks to its top-tier agents, editors, and authors who give talks, participate in panel discussions, and listen to book pitches.
This year, I participated in the "What Makes A Memoir Stand Out?" panel discussion with award-winning memoirist Donna M. Johnson, science writer/memoirist Juli Berwald, and Flatiron Books editor James Melai. The panel was moderated by essayist and novelist Charlotte Gullick, who is also a brilliant and funny educator. As I constantly tell writers, if you can take a class taught by Charlotte, do it! In fact, I'm always thrilled when I learn that Charlotte is either a panelist or moderator because I know it will be an entertaining and illuminating discussion
But I want to go back to the panelists and tell you a bit more about them. I've known Donna for years. She is passionate about her beliefs; she is honest to the very core of her being; she's smart, funny, talented; and she works unceasingly to improve her craft and then shares her insights with others. If you haven't read her memoir Holy Ghost Girl, do it now.
Though I knew the name Juli Berwald, due to Juli's reputation as a stellar writer–you know Juli is an outstanding writer simply by the fact that she can write a memoir about jellyfish and make it a top-selling book that's been featured on NPR's All Things Considered–I'd never met her until moments before the panel.
To be truthful, I was a bit scared of meeting Juli because of her impressive reputation and success as a memoirist. But this is a surprising thing about authors: we often stand in such awe of other writers that we are fearful of saying something stupid when meeting them. Then we meet them and find out they are just like us.
In this case, Juli told me that the way I wove my reporting and personal story in Secret Sex Lives helped her weave her reporting and personal story in Spineless. To say I was shocked and honored is an understatement. So please, read NPR's review of Spineless and then read her memoir.
And that brings me to James Melia. James and I had never met either. But to say he clicked with all of the panelists is an understatement. He is smart, insightful, funny, and an editor with whom I'd like to work. Yes, I was that impressed with James.
That's a ridiculously long introduction to say I thought Charlotte's questions for the memoir panel were terrific. And since I was taught to write my "interview answers" beforehand, as a way to organize my thoughts so that I can maybe–if I'm lucky–get them from my brain to my mouth and to the listener without sounding like mixed up mush, I thought struggling memoir writers out there might be interested in my answers. So here they are with a few insights from the other panelists, too. (Please note, the comments from the other panelists aren't direct quotes. They are far too brief summations.)
Are what draws people initially to a memoir and what holds them until the last page necessarily the same thing?
SS: Probably not. I’m guessing it’s the author, the subject matter, or friends’ recommendations that initially draws them to a book. After that, it’s story, voice, passion, honesty, vulnerability, and relatability—something that makes them feel not so alone and different or weird—or learning about a world different from their own.
DJ: Who is telling the story and why they are telling it draws people to memoir.
Donna's response sent us into a perhaps unanticipated but always needed discussion of voice, which James succinctly described as "personality." I loved that answer, but I'll try to expand on his reply for readers and writers here.
Voice is the author's personality and point of view revealed through the story. And both are revealed through the writer's word choices, sentence structures, settings, actions that are focused on and actions that are dismissed with a mere figurative wave of the hand, dialogue that's chosen and dialogue that's left out, characters who are in the story and characters who are left out, characterization, and as Donna emphasized–how the external action is woven with the internal action. That, she said, is a tricky thing to do.
Think about it. You write a scene where you're on your way to a funeral and you slip and fall. That's the external action. But what's the internal action? Are you embarrassed? Do you think it's funny? Do you think that's typical of what's going on in your life right then and there? Do you sit there and cry? Do you laugh to keep from crying? Do you think, oh, no, I think I've broken my arm, my clothes are ripped, and I've got to get to that funeral that starts in 20 minutes, what am I going to do? How you handle all of that creates voice (and conflict). Do you show yourself sitting there pondering all of that? Or do you show yourself jumping up and thinking through all of that while standing … or limping down the driveway … or dusting yourself off … or walking back into the house? Do you handle the external action quickly and dwell on the internal? Or vice versa?
JM: In memoir, there is a burden for the voice that's not in other genres.
There's an age-old workshop question for stories/novels: Why is the character telling this story? How do memoirs answer this question?
SS: Think about how many times reviewers write that a memoir was therapy for the author and the reader is stuck “listening” to the author’s self-therapy. I think so often we begin telling a story because we have to get something off our chests and/or sort through our own feelings and emotions to come to terms with … shall I say a trauma or issue in our own lives. But I think for a memoir to really work, the story has to be bigger than the author, i.e. the author is telling a story that’s larger than her small personal story.
In other words, if we don’t have a why, we don’t have a reason to write the book. Sometimes that why can be simply because it’s a riveting and/or unique story, i.e. like a novel. Sometimes it can be because there’s a lesson to be learned or info to be shared or comfort to be offered or to let readers know they’re not alone and not the only one going through “this.”
To some degree, Secret Sex Lives worked that in reverse. It was (and is) supposed to be about other people’s sex lives. Then, at my editor’s insistence, it became about me. But it wasn’t really. I was just the “safe” guide, the questioning, curious, confused guide through this world who allowed people to go on this weird, kinky journey with me.
And the real story was about our nation’s loneliness and need for deep, honest, nonjudgmental communication and connection with others
How can memoirs incorporate material beyond the personal narrative–like Suzy's Secret Sex Lives and Juli's Spineless?
This is where Juli graciously talked about how reading Secret Sex Lives helped her entwine the personal with reportage.
SS: I lucked out in that my book was supposed to be narrative nonfiction, then my editor changed it to memoir. So I then had to insert my life and feelings into the story, when, in actuality, that was very difficult for me to do. As a journalist, I didn’t like writing about myself. But then again, memoir needs to be about something bigger than ourselves, so … why not jellyfish? Or murder? Or sex? Because certainly we all have feelings when it comes to what we’re researching and writing. In my true crime book Breaking Point, I certainly had feelings about the killer Andrea Yates, her husband Rusty, and their five children, and there are parts of that book that I wish I could have written in first person.
But I think the bottom line is can the story be better told and have more conflict, honesty, and insightful impact if it’s told simply as reportage or as a personal story. Secret Sex Lives was one of those books. Breaking Point probably wasn't, because it was more important to have objectivity.
With so many personal essays being published online, what makes any particular story stand out? Shock value? Introspection? Timeliness?
SS: I don’t think shock value works. It may get something a bit of brief attention, but if substance and a great story aren’t there, that value rapidly disintegrates. I think timeliness can be influential. For example, a book proposal that I’m currently reworking was one I wrote 18 years ago. Response was the story was important and well-written but the subject matter was just too difficult to handle. Now, because of recent news events, I thought the book might be timely. My last editor, who turned down the book that nearly 20 years ago, thinks it might be timely too. And apparently PW does too, because they recently asked publishers to submit a list of books on the topic.
But is that going to make the book have shelf life or back list life? No, what’s going to make it last is story, voice, conflict, and some introspection. For me, too many books slide into narcissism when there is so much introspection that it becomes navel-gazing.
Must a memoir follow the same sort of arc as a novel?
SS: I think to a large degree it should, but most important (for me) is voice, character, conflict, and resolution. And if you have those elements, you have a “novel.” But of all those things, I think the thing most “beginners”—and I include myself in that—leave out is conflict.
JM: Like novels, avoid the burden of chronology.
DJ: So many writers think a memoir should end, like a novel, with a deep epiphany. But sometimes all that's left is bewilderment. Don't manufacture an epiphany that's not real; the readers will feel the change is manufactured.
CG: The "epiphany" (quotation marks are mine) might be a shift in yourself. For instance, the questions you had at the beginning of the book, may not be answered; they simply may have changed.
How much of what makes a memoir stand out is serendipity?
SS: A lot!
I'm going to give you one more tip that I heard during a different session of the conference. Well, actually, it's a tip from literary agent Kristina Moore, who is with the Wylie Agency in New York. I just inserted a bit more detail. And that tip is when you're writing your book (or at least by the time you finish it), make sure you know the answer to this question: Why would anyone pay $30 to spend a few hours with your book rather than spend $10 to binge on Netflix for a month?