Today’s post is excerpted from You Should Really Write a Book by Regina Brooks and Brenda Lane Richardson. Copyright © 2012 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.
In considering memoir writing through the prism of relationships, it’s important to alert you to two deadly sins. From the standpoint of trying to engage readers, these “sinful” behaviors are every bit as offensive as going on a first date and talking ad nauseum about your ex, or texting at the movies.
Invite folks to a pity party, and you will be a lonely host. If you want to avoid sounding sorry for yourself, consider whether you have resolved most of the issues you’re writing about. If you have not, you may want to concentrate on writing strictly for the sake of healing, with plans to undertake a more commercial endeavor later. It’s up to you to decide whether you have triumphed over these difficult circumstances.
If you want to sell your memoir, don’t write to air old grievances. Sourcebooks Trade’s editorial manager Peter Lynch explained that he loses interest in manuscripts if the author’s motives feel too personal. “If your goal in publishing a memoir about your custody battle is to let the world know how terrible your ex is, that is of little interest. But if your goal is to show how a parent’s love is complicated and sometimes requires tough decisions, that’s a universal theme.”
In memoir writing, attempts to retaliate will backfire, causing you to portray yourself, the protagonist, in the most flattering light, while your antagonist comes off as one-dimensional and malevolent. Hissable villains only work in dated cartoons. Readers will turn against you when they sense you are trying to manipulate them onto your side.
This anti-vengeance advice also pertains to your parents. If you catch yourself blaming them for your problems, it may be a good time to do genogram work. This therapeutic system allows you to trace familial behaviors, beliefs, and patterns. It can help you better understand your parents and yourself. Instructions for constructing genograms by hand or with software can be found at various websites. You may also choose to seek out a clinician who uses the genogram in therapeutic practice.
Other efforts at healing, which might include working with a therapist or supportive group, may also help you feel more forgiving, which is a self-enhancing process—and facilitative to the writing process. The word “forgiveness” is by no means a suggestion that you forget what happened to you. By its very nature, memoir writing is about remembering. However, if you hope to sell your manuscript, you have to work through the issues you’re writing about, so readers will be more likely to trust you.
Speaking of relationships with parents, you may have noticed that some critics find it “amazing” when an author writes of loving or forgiving the most flawed mothers and fathers. In truth, it’s not unusual to find even adults who were removed from abusive homes longing for their parents. The bond between parent and child is often enduring. How else could humankind survive? Please don’t misinterpret this as a suggestion that you should manufacture emotions, which wouldn’t be healthy for you or your writing. The truth is, though, if you present a parent as the embodiment of evil, it will be a disservice to you and your work.
To read more—including advice on coming-of-age memoirs, addiction memoirs, travel and food memoirs, and religion & spirituality memoirs—visit Amazon to preview and read the first chapter.
Regina Brooks is a literary agent and member of the AAR, and an author, editor, publisher, and member of the guest faculty for MFA programs around the country. Well known on the writer’s conference circuit she is also a faculty member of the Harvard Writers Course. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Brenda Lane Richardson, MSW, is the author of ten books, a recipient of the PEN-Oakland Literary Award, a journalist, and a New York University–trained social worker. She lives in Berkley, California, where she uses memoir writing as a therapeutic tool.