If you’re writing a memoir — and if so, why? — your audience doesn’t want sweetness and light:
The author Phillip Lopate complains that the problem with confessional writing is that people don’t confess enough. And I agree. The biggest mistake new writers make is going to the computer wearing a three-piece suit. They craft love letters about their wonderful parents, spouses, children and they share upbeat anecdotal slices of life. This rarely inspires brilliance or self-insight. Drama, conflict and tension are more compelling, especially when the piece starts with your “I” narrator about to fall off a cliff (metaphorically, of course). It’s counterintuitive, but qualities that make you likable and popular in real life — good looks, wild success, happy marriage, lovely home, healthy confidence — will make a reader despise you. The more of a wreck you are from the start, the more the audience is hooked.
So I’m a few yards ahead of the starter’s block. So far, so good. Now what?
But remember, a litany of bitterness will not suffice. My rule for first person nonfiction is: question, challenge and trash yourself more than anyone else. My favorite essays begin with emotional devastation and conclude with surprising metamorphosis.
Hmmm. I haven’t had any substantial experience with redemption since the days of S&H Green Stamps. Or if I did, I didn’t recognize it. (Does that count as trashing myself?)