If this memoir author is famous, maybe you are too

by Jerry Waxler

This is the second part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.”  Click here to read part one

Who is this person and why should I care?

In memoir workshops and talks, people often ask me “Why would anyone care about my life?” My answer has two parts.

One: By crafting the story you will begin to understand the answer to your own question. As you write, you delve deeper into your own journey. You learn how the parts fit together, and attempt to develop story-values that will make the journey worth reading. Writing a memoir is a fabulous creative exercise that can help you grow more self-aware, and wiser about the journey of your own life.

Two: People who read memoirs are curious about the journeys of the people around them. If they only wanted impeccable storycrafting, they could choose from the vast selection of novels whose authors can invent whatever they want. Instead, we reach for memoirs because of our passion for actual human experience. I have read hundreds of memoirs because I am fascinated by the stories of real people. Write your memoir for readers like me.

If she is famous, maybe you are too

Before the twenty-first century, most memoirs were about celebrities. Famous people are fun to read about because it feels like we’re learning about old friends. This is one reason I read “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Novotny’s first husband, Joe Junior, was the son of the baseball giant, Joe Dimaggio. Joe Junior’s step-mom was Marilyn Monroe. By reading about Novotny’s life, I thought I could learn the background of these famous people.

But Novotny was not famous herself and neither was her husband. She was famous twice removed. The presence of her memoir on my book shelf points to a fascinating trend in the twenty-first century. The very notion of “fame” is changing. Through the internet we all know people who know people. Like the old game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the internet age has ushered in the six degrees of every one of us. As we continue to grow increasingly connected to each other, fame in the internet age spreads out exponentially.

In fact, despite her connection with one of the most famous people in the world, I actually heard about Dawn Novotny through Linda Joy Myers, the president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, who wrote the foreword to the book. I was attracted to “Ragdoll Redeemed” because of my respect for Linda Joy’s energetic work with memoir writers, and her belief in the power of memoirs. And now that I am writing about the book, you have another way to know about Dawn Novotny. You know her because you heard about her from me.

When you ask yourself, “Why would anyone care about my life?” don’t ask it as a rhetorical question and assume the answer is “no one.” Switch it into an actual question, and then attempt to arrive at a specific, compelling answer.

First, when potential readers consider your book, they will be interested to learn that you have spent years plying the craft to create a story that contains dramatic tension and release. You will boil down the essence of your findings in the subtitle and blurb and readers will decide if they want to participate in your exploration. Part of their joy of reading your memoir will be to learn about your creative process. You are showing your readers how a writer can turn a lifetime into a book. Any memoir reader would be interested in that.

Second, out of all the people in the world, some of them are curious about you. Consider all the potential readers you are or will be connected with through various personal and internet groups. In addition, to internet acquaintances there are also people who want to know more about your situation. If you grew up in the Midwest, or are involved in Twelve Step programs, or love to quilt, people who had those experiences will relate to yours. For example, when Tracy Seeley wrote “My Ruby Slippers: The Road to Kansas and a Sense of Place” anyone from Kansas might wonder about her journey.

As we warm up to living in the internet age, we aspiring memoir writers are participating in this shift of attention from traditional fame to a new version that includes everyone. And Dawn Novotny’s life journey represents a perfect model for this transition. She started out as a rag doll, living as an object of other people’s dreams. Gradually she discovered that she is a real person. We’re doing the same thing as a culture, moving from the old-fashioned definition of fame in which we only cared about inaccessible stars on a pedestal, to a new definition that opens us up to authentic people. By writing a memoir we can share our authenticity with people who crave that sort of thing.


Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

Another memoir by someone who grew up in the shadow of fame is by Erik Erikson’s daughter Sue Bloland. In her memoir “In the Shadow of Fame,” she wrote about the strange experience of growing up near her father who was a famous psychologist. Speaking of reenactment, she too became a therapist.

This is the second part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part three

More memoir writing resources

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.

6 thoughts on “If this memoir author is famous, maybe you are too

  1. Jerry,
    Thank you for this excellent post! I really appreciate your reminder that readers want to be drawn into a story they can relate to whether you are a celebrity or not. Our obligation as memoirists is to offer the best we have for our readers. What intrigues me the most about Dawn’s memoir is her human response to the challenges of living in the shadow of Marilyn Monroe- her story in the midst of all the expectations that surrounded her, her “hero’s journey” back to sanity.
    Thanks for sharing this very thought-provoking and engaging post!

  2. Hi Jerry,
    Once again, thank you for using my book as an example of the power of identification through reading memoirs.

    To underscore your point, while I was doing my virtual blog tour, I ran across Chynna T. Laird’s memoir, White Elephants. By the time I read her book, I was so sick of my own ‘story’ that I assumed I was long over those feelings of utter despair. Yet, I wept as I identified with Laird’s struggles of healing and redemption. The power of her hero’s journey profoundly impacted the vulnerability of my own humanity.

    Healing can and does come in many forms AND I cannot say enough for the power of memoir writing.

    Warm Regards, dawn

    P.S. I like that we share a mutual appreciation for Linda Joy Myers.

  3. Your first point about those of us crafting our memoir hit close to home for me. Now, after several years of work writing my journey, I’ve come to realize the story I began with is not the story I am now compelled to write. The journey to create my memoir feels now, like a memoir in its own right, because in my zeal to discover my story I’ve discovered profound forgiveness of my parents. My life now is forever changed by that forgiveness which may have not occurred if I hadn’t begun writing what I ‘thought’ was my memoir.

  4. Thanks Judy. This is perfect!! Yes, yes, yes, writing a memoir is a journey in itself. And every memoir writer will go through these stages or ones like them, from the initial thought, to taking notes, then forming an idea of how to shape it, and then most surprisingly, learning lessons about life as you go. It’s a profound method to deepen self-understanding. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your journey.


  5. Pingback: A Memoir That Relieves the Lifelong Burden of Shame | Memory Writers Network

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