by Jerry Waxler
This is the fourth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one
If the only books you read are ones you find in the bookstore, you might conclude that memoir writers limit their attention to small segments of life. However, many aspiring memoir writers who attend my writing workshops have a much broader agenda. They are interested in discovering the meaning of their entire lives and are trying to envision the character arc not just across a few years, but across decades.
Unfortunately, this desire to portray the panorama of a life violates a central mandate of the memoir genre. According to agents, editors, and teachers, a memoir should be about a slice of life, preferably a short one. According to these rules, if you include too much, for example including your childhood and adulthood in the same story, you bump up against the label “autobiography” which supposedly guarantees a rejection.
I have heard fiction writing teachers say “the less backstory the better,” and that “you always need less backstory than you think you do.” Modern readers supposedly are too impatient to stick with a character for too long. The trend toward shorter, tighter time frames reaches a crescendo in the hit television series, 24. Each one-hour episode chronicles the events of an hour in story-time.
This was not always the case. In early versions of the novel, authors were allowed to trace the origins of their characters. In one of my favorite novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the power of the story arises from the pressures that build up across decades. And Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders traces the course of the protagonist’s whole life.
Now, as increasing numbers of people are drawn by the allure of the memoir revolution, we are beginning to notice that this literary form can help us make sense of who we are and where we’ve been. Memoirs are a perfect place to tie together the chapters of your life, to see how one thing led to another, and to discover the wisdom hidden within our own experience. As we look back across decades and try to capture their psychological complexity, the backstory is crucial.
Our reading preferences are beginning to reveal this awakening curiosity. Blockbusters such as Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle, provide intimate insight into the way their protagonists grow up. Those books and others like them helped launch the memoir revolution. And another reading trend provides even more proof that we are interested in the way people emerge into adulthood. Harry Potter, one of the bestselling stories of all time, was about a young person Coming of Age. He had so much to figure out, and so do we. Apparently, we collectively crave deeper understanding of this process.
I recently found a memoir Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe by Dawn Novotny that demonstrates this longer search for meaning. By including her whole life, Novotny showed me how all the parts fit together. If she had limited her story just to the neglect and abuse during childhood, I would never have learned how that childhood led to her failed marriages. If she only wrote about her troubled young adulthood, I would never have understood the period of growth and wisdom that came later. Over this longer time frame, she portrayed a compelling dramatic arc.
By including all the stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption. These long-term developments are among the most satisfying rewards of lifestory reading and writing, and I’m glad Ragdoll Redeemed extended beyond the “standard” definition of memoir.
Tips for your Memoir
When you first attempt to write the story of your life, you may be tempted to follow Dawn Novotny’s lead and include the whole thing. I encourage you to submit to that temptation, at least for early drafts. Once you record the whole thing on paper, you have a number of options.
For example, this longer version could provide wonderful raw material from which to find a shorter segment with a tighter focus. Or you could break it into sequential volumes, the way Frank McCourt did with Angela’s Ashes and Tis, or the way Mary Karr did with Liar’s Club and Cherry, or the way Haven Kimmel did with A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Or perhaps you will be so excited to have been through this creative process, you will decide to ignore the rules and publish it in its entirety.
You don’t need to decide now. By the time you are ready, perhaps the industry will change, as it always does. Perhaps some memoir of a complete life will cross over and become a New York Times bestseller and establish the validity of Life Reviews as a sub-genre, and then publishers will be just as interested in the story of your lifetime as you are.
Other memoirs from my reading list that offer a life review: Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep about his attempt to understand his three failed marriages. Harry Bernstein’s Golden Willow about the journey of his 67 years of marriage. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man recaps his journey as a teacher. And Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed about a lifetime journey as an actor.
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.