Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Far Will We Go?

Most of us approach memoir writing determined to tell the truth – the whole truth – nothing but the truth. That certainly was my intention.

Then a savvy editor advised my savvy agent that I should expand my triumphant cancer story into my entire life story and make that triumphant also.

My original approach had been to tell my story by telling other stories. Of the many people who carried me through my ordeal to survival and thrival. I loved that story but it was a cancer book.

“Too many of those out there,” savvy editor said. “Too much of a niche book. We [meaning, mainstream print publishers] can’t afford to do niche books these days.”

So I shifted gears and began again. From where I literally did begin – with Grandma. This section was definitely triumphant. A thumbs-up period of my life. Almost too good to be true.

Then Grandma died. The tone of my life took a sharp left after that. Out of her sunny garden into the dark world of my mentally disturbed mother. Not much triumph there.

I did my best to give the telling an upbeat twist via small victories and instants of help along the way. I also only skimmed the surface of the truly dark stuff. I didn’t leave it out. I didn’t dive in either.

That turned out to be a wrong choice in commercial mainstream publishing terms. The darker the better, I was told. The deeper the dredging the closer to pay dirt you get.

Sensation sells. Violence and sex. Danger and damage. The brutal the bad and the ugly. Plus terror and a torrent of tears.

The ante toward all of that is rising in the memoir genre. Annals of angst flood the marketplace. Each one in most cases is an attempt to top the rest as a terrible tale. The goal – to attract mass attention by mining the downside.

The story of my years after Grandma gets very downside indeed. If I were to go truly damaged and dirty I could match melodramas with the best – or perhaps the worst – of them.

At this point in the prodding of my marketability consciousness my savvy agent asked me a couple of questions.

“Do you want to do this? Is this what you want to be known as?”

After decades of struggling out of my personal shadows into the light beyond. After re-creating myself to be taken seriously as a proficient profession and healthy human being. Is my unhealthy history what I want to be remembered for?

In response I returned to my original story. How I beat cancer with a lot of help from friends and strangers who became friends.  With a new title now – Lifted to the Light: A Story of Struggle and Kindness.

My savvy agent tells me that the digital market appears to work for niche books. The digital market just happens to be how far I’ve been wanting to go.

7 comments:

April Kihlstrom said...

I love this post. I think there's more than enough darkness and angst out there already. Personlly, I think we need stories of surviving and triumphing over challenges. We need stories of hope and strength. Here's hoping you find great success with your story written the way YOU want to tell it.

Alice Orr said...

I agree April... We need hope and too often we are offered too little of it... I know firsthand that strength of spirit has a lot to do with surviving and eventually triumphing through and past our challenges.. Yet it is easy to forget that while in the midst of the mess... Uplifting and inspiring stories can be voices of possibility to illuminate the way along shadowed and potholed paths... Here's to encouraging words now and always... Ali

Giora said...

Alice, it all depends who do you write your book. Do you write to tell your story, or do you write to have a best seller?
If you write to share your story of beating cancer with friends, then self publish it as an e-book. If you want to appeal to many readers and have a publisher invest in publishing in print form, then you have to follow the publisher's requests.
It seems as if you already made your decision, so good luck with that. And you can still write two books. One in your way as an e-book, and one following the savvy people as a print book. Two books, two different titles, two different focus.

Alice Orr said...

Giora... I totally agree with you when it comes to how to get published where or where not... My point was more about what you really wish to reveal and how you wish to be seen... I remember a panel featuring Kathryn Harrison with her agent and editor shortly after publication of The Kiss.. Kathryn's memoir of her affair with her father... Agent and editor ran interference for the shellshocked author and the editor most pointedly said, "Think carefully about what you write [in your memoir] because you will live with it out there everywhere for the rest of your life."... That was my own point in this post.. not the point about getting published or not getting published... I believe that every memoirist should be aware of the consequences of going naked in the world. Every memoirist needs to be fully cognizant of what is involved long-term should she decide to risk ultimate vulnerability... Being published or not published is sort of beside that point.

Zita Christian said...

I faced a similar situation several years ago when I wrote about my husband's adventure "thru-hiking" the Appalachian Trail in six months at the age of 60. One particular publisher told my agent that it was clear I could write, that if I could get my husband to talk about what he was really thinking on that trek, the agent would be interested. I knew the childhood pain my husband was processing. I knew he wouldn't want anyone else to know about it. So the manuscript sits in the drawer. Pandora's Box remains sealed.

Zita Christian said...

I faced a similar situation several years ago when I wrote about my husband's adventure "thru-hiking" the Appalachian Trail in six months at the age of 60. One particular publisher told my agent that it was clear I could write, that if I could get my husband to talk about what he was really thinking on that trek, the agent would be interested. I knew the childhood pain my husband was processing. I knew he wouldn't want anyone else to know about it. So the manuscript sits in the drawer. Pandora's Box remains sealed.

Alice Orr said...

Yes Zita... that's exactly what I'm talking about.. the choices that we make for ourselves and for others about how much we will reveal.... there are secrets which we need to honor and there is privacy which we need to protect.... This is not at all easy territory to navigate... At the very least it deserves to be wrestled with before writing.