Insights from Brooke Shields’ celebrity memoir

by Jerry Waxler

I have been avoiding celebrity memoirs, because they often play by a different set of rules than other memoirs. They are often driven by name dropping and voyeurism, rather than great story principles. I love the pleasure of a fabulously written book, and celebrity-written books are not known for their literary merit. But I also want to know more about the insides of all kinds of people, not just literary giants. I am willing to setting aside elitist expectations of literary excellence to expand my own horizons.

All these thoughts went through my mind as I read the cover of Brooke Shields memoir, “Down Came the Rain” deciding whether to buy it or shelve it. This moment of reckoning is a great opportunity to understand the purchasing decision people will make when they pick up your memoir.

The celebrity phenomenon is a huge issue in our public life. We talk about celebrities, follow their work and their private lives, and weirdly often feel like we know them. I’m dieing to understand what makes all this so important and what it’s like for the people on the other side of the camera, and there’s the chance a memoir will provide insights.

Another reason I was willing to read this particular book is that it tells of her post-partum depression, a serious condition that I want to understand from inside. And once I started reading, I discovered she was unable to have a natural pregnancy, and so she threw herself into in vitro fertilization. I’ve heard this is a grueling experience, and I was interested to read what it felt like. She not only tells me the details of her feelings, but also provides the technical information to keep me informed and to help pace the story.

I’m pleased with the tone of the book. She has an engaging way of showing me situations, sharing conversations, and telling me how she thinks and feels, that lets me get inside the situation and feel it myself. That’s what I want from a memoir, and she is accomplishing that.

Amidst her celebrity life, she’s also human, and I was able to find insights about how life works for her. For example, in the first scene in the book, while she is backstage waiting for her cue at a live performance, she gets a phone call that tells her the fetus she is carrying is dead. Here in real life was an example of the saying, “The show must go on.” She responded to her cue and went on stage moments later. It was a great glimpse into the emotional complexity of being a performer. And it was also a good example of the unthinkable interface between normalcy and tragedy. None of us can pick the most convenient time for tragedy, and often we learn something awful at the worst possible moment.

Another celebrity-oriented aspect of her story is about paparazzi and reporters. She avoids going to the hospital, because she doesn’t want to deal with the media exposure. When she’s leaving the hospital, she prepares herself to face the gauntlet of photographers. She breaks into tears, pulls herself together, pastes on a smile and walks out. The photographers lean close to her baby, and she feels a stab of fear, and then she gets into the car. She thinks, “at least none of them followed us home.” I’ve often thought this whole notion of being hounded by paparazzi is one of the most intrusive things any human being should be expected to endure. It would drive me completely nuts. And yet, performers are not supposed to complain, because it’s the attention of the media that fuels their financial success. So instead of complaining, Brooke Shields puts on a smile and keeps walking.

Such episodes may seem to apply only to celebrities. But there is a lesson here that could inform other memoirists. When the scene itself is so filled with tension, I don’t need to hear her complaint. I want to feel my own reactions, and I am perfectly capable of being sickened by this situation on my own. The fact is, complaints slow the momentum of the story. We generally want the protagonist to “deal with it” and move on.

This is the way literary memoirs work, too. Tobias Wolff, author of the superbly written “This Boy’s Life” lets the reader draw their own emotional conclusion. For example, when Wolff’s step-father steals the boy’s college savings, he asks his mother for more details about the disappearance of the money. “How could that happen?” But she doesn’t want to talk about it. She hates complaining, and changes the subject. Wolff, the protagonist is left to figure it out on his own. It’s a powerful scene, and not a bad model to follow for any memoirist looking for a tone that will carry the reader to the last page.

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Example of Character Arc in a Celebrity Memoir – Sydney Sheldon’s Other Side of Me

by Jerry Waxler

Celebrity memoirs, sometimes limited to name-dropping, can still offer lessons, especially if the author became famous because of his successful writing. After all, as memoir writers, this is close to our own goals. We want to write, and have other people read our writing. So reading a celebrity memoir of a writer might have particular value for aspiring memoir writers.

In fact, one famous writer actually did write a memoir that is a great teaching tool. Stephen King’s “On Writing” maintains his stunning connection with his audience, and gives a great read while telling about his life. Another celebrity memoir that I read recently, is more problematic: writer Sydney Sheldon’s “The Other Side of Me.” The first part of the book is a page turner, (actually I listened to the audio book), because he struggles against insurmountable odds, using his creative talent to escape the poverty of the Great Depression. And then, when he actually becomes a successful screen and stage writer, he settles into a rhythm, telling about his productions, what famous stars he meets, what famous producers and directors he works with. His milestones seem to keep coming in such a predictable, steady manner there is no more conflict, and as a reader, I wonder why I’m bothering. It’s yet another proof of that adage that a story needs to be going somewhere, gaining ground against some kind of odds.

The beginning of the book is a GREAT rags to riches coming of age story, and the last half is a sort of gossip column celebrity name dropping fest. By the end of the book, I was feeling cheated. Then afterword bailed it out. The professional book reader stopped narrating the audio book, and Sheldon himself explained the conclusion in his own voice. One of the most compelling lines in the book was “I kept striving so hard to ‘get there’ but every time I reached a new milestone, I couldn’t find ‘there.'”

I think he added the afterword precisely because he or someone sensed there was no closure.  In the afterword,  Sheldon said he had no more need to keep writing best sellers. And I felt that in a sense, he was finally able to put down the sword and relax. Thank God! After all the pressure, and all the drive, I felt a sense of relief that he had found a ‘there.’ I don’t know if this was the intended Character Arc, but I found this summation gave me the sense of closure I was seeking.