To write well, you have to write in service of someone or something other than yourself. Or, at the very least, to become a published author, you have to appear to have written in service of someone or something other than yourself. For mega celebrities, such as Paris Hilton and Amanda Knox (who both wrote memoirs), these rules do not apply. For the unknowns (that is, the rest of us), we must give people a reason—and a compelling one—to read our books. What a pesky problem!
In college, when I wore berets and debated about post structural feminism on people’s porches, I wanted only to write great literature, i.e. to be “literary.” Even after a stint as a newspaper reporter, I couldn’t shake this ambition that my writing become, someday and somehow, canonical. How far the mighty fall. I recently hired the wonderful Theo Nestor (author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over) to critique my manuscript. She asked about my goals. “For somebody to publish my book,” I said, “and for the book to stay in print, at least for a while.”
When I was younger, I couldn’t be bothered to think about audience: did Nathaniel Hawthorne or Charlotte Bronte (because I was so much like them) cater to an audience? My answer was no. After all, thinking about audience would hamper a young writer’s ability to write. In one of my first MFA workshops at the University of Washington, my classmate said this about my non-fiction essay: “I enjoyed it, but what’s universal about it?” I felt resentful about this question because no one ever asked it of the fiction writers. Why did non-fiction writers need an excuse to write about themselves? Why did our writing always have to be “universal”? Doesn’t the very word “universal” imply that everyone on earth acts the same ways and feels the same things, and isn’t that preposterous?
Despite all my tap dancing, eventually I ran into the wall: as a memoir writer, I do have to connect with an audience. Memoirs that have no purpose—that offer no answers, insights, or fresh observations about life—bore me. There has to be a point, and the point has to matter to other people. As a writer, you can find the point before the writing begins, during the writing process, or afterward. Before is probably easiest. I’m going to try that next time.