Memoir Shadows

casting shadows

on pine needles

downy paths

softer sonder


wonder brother

on our own

still together

I had the opportunity to take a local memoir writing workshop recently. Suffice to say, it was awesome. I was unsure about taking the class because it meant leaving the house on Saturday mornings and giving up some of our precious weekend family time. My husband decided to dedicate those mornings to “weekly chores” with the boys, so while I was off talking with other local writers about words, he and the kids were vacuuming, sweeping, washing the dog, and– as always seems to be the case with dads– having far too much fun doing it all. That way I could feel both guilty and spoiled while taking the class. Hah!

Honestly, though, he reminded me that I needed to take some time for myself and my writing, which is true. I’m sure I’ve mentioned before on here that my writing is the first thing that gets left behind when I’m busy with work and the kids.

The most powerful lesson I learned from the workshop is that, contrary to some of my concerns, my story is important. The instructors and other writers offered me advice, especially about making local writing connections, and did not seem put off by my cancer stories. They all had difficult stories to share, from taking care of parents with Alzheimer’s in their final months to losing a young child to experiencing heartrending childhoods. It reinforced the idea that we all have our own heartbreaks, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to share them. These stories can strengthen the bonds between us.

There isn’t necessarily a “right” way to share your heartbreak, but there are ways that are more powerful. I learned in the workshop that the strongest of our stories included the humor of pain (perhaps pain in fact begets humor, as one of the writers shared), the relatability of some tangible element (can we bond over that unfinished science project in our child’s closet or the wedding ring lost in a local lake?), and our tender, unbridled honesty. Perhaps these ingredients form the recipe of memoir.

I backed off on my memoir this spring as the direct result of another workshop. That workshop was a virtual one offered from a literary agent I’d admired from afar. I had these pie in the sky dreams that such a popular agent would love my memoir’s concept and help me share my story so that I could help others. Boy, was I wrong.

That agent’s workshop left me eviscerated. She had tons of feedback to share on the other writers’ pieces, but when it came to mine, she said, “The cancer memoir market is already flooded.” No other feedback. In my mind, that translated to: “Nobody cares about your story.”

At the time, I felt my blood boil, though, filling with what my husband calls my signature “redhead rage”. It’s rare in appearance, but it does make my body shake. I had spent hours tailoring my query letter. And I’d spent too much money on this workshop to get dismissed so flippantly. I bloody well know the cancer memoir market was flooded because I’d read practically all the cancer memoirs on the market since my own diagnosis. But I also knew the facts on how well these stories did on the market, and I had clearly pointed out all the unique elements that set my story apart in my query– quite vividly, humorously, and with pizzazz, in my humble opinion.

I could hardly voice my protest, though, because I was so shocked by her abrupt dismissal. I tried to point out the pieces I’d indicated that made my story unique, and the research I’d done.

She barely acknowledged my words, just repeating that the market was flooded and it would be really difficult to stand out before moving onto the next person. I had the painful impression she hadn’t even read beyond the first line of my query.

It’s difficult to be dismissed under normal circumstances. When someone dismisses your entire painful and unique experience as “just another cancer memoir”? Yeah, it kind of feels like another six rounds of chemo. Super shitty all around.

I unfollowed the agent and pouted for days. (As if that had any impact on her– ha!) It took me a bit of time to realize that the one other woman who had written a memoir in the workshop had been dismissed in a similar way– and she also had a super unique story. She was part of some childhood trauma study that had only been conducted on 100 people. The agent had given her the same response as she’d given me, that it was a “flooded market” and that her story wouldn’t stand out.

“This is literally a story that less than 100 people can tell,” the woman insisted over Zoom as the agent brushed her off. I hadn’t really made the connection that the agent simply didn’t like memoir until I came across an article she published in the summer, again tearing apart memoirs. Her wish list at the time (yes, I peeked at it again) had been adjusted to only include other types of nonfiction, like self-help. It appeared she no longer liked memoir at all, and I had apparently been a complete idiot to waste the time with that particular project in her workshop.

But I was being even more of an idiot for letting one stranger tell me what to try to publish.

I’m grateful that I took the local memoir workshop this November. Not only did it remind me that I do have a unique story, but it also gave me newfound confidence in my ability to write something from that story that could interest a random group of fellow writers from quite different backgrounds. And I remembered that it isn’t a weakness but a strength of memoir to speak to our shared connections. So I’ll keep writing. 🙂

13 thoughts on “Memoir Shadows

  1. That’s the thing about letting one or two gatekeepers determine your book’s quality versus letting the market decide.

    Sure, when it comes to format and distribution, going the self-publishing route may mean taking on so many other jobs, but if people like David Goggins were to listen to the agents claims that ‘nobody wants to read a black guy’s self-help story’, he wouldn’t have the millions he has today (versus the $100,000 lowball deal he was offered).

    Wishing you all the best with your memoir, which you _should_ continue pursuing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely. Traditional publishing is such a very strange industry. It seems to be a place desperate to paint itself as far more accepting and diverse than it actually is. I wish all the best for those who can make it work, and I’ll keep at it, but I’m not sure it’s the right route for me.

      Liked by 1 person

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