The crappiest day of your life

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?)


  1. Bob Belvedere »

    3 January 2013 · 6:53 am

    If I were ever to attempt a memoir, I would probably use Russell Kirk’s approach: The Sword Of Imagination is written in the third person. I think that approach would give one a detachment that may be more conducive to self-insight.

  2. Joan of Argghh! »

    3 January 2013 · 6:57 am

    My siblings speak of writing a non-fic book about horrendous family life, but we always sigh because Pat Conroy beat us to it.

  3. Roger Green »

    3 January 2013 · 7:47 am

    I’m reading Pete Townsend’s Who I Am. I think he’s hit on the formula. Great read so far, 20% in.

  4. McGehee »

    3 January 2013 · 7:51 am

    I do all my self-trashing by including bits of myself in fictional characters and trashing them. That way the self-discovery happens where it will do the most good, and I don’t have to (a) put myself overtly through the wringer or (2) ask other people to care that I put myself through the wringer.

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