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Memoirs — A Cautionary Tale

Things to try and forget about while you're writing a memoir about your love life:

  1. Your grandma is going to read your book. Including the part where you lose your virginity on her front lawn at age 15, while in the process of trying to get your first kiss.

  2. The people who are in your book are going to read it. Some of them are going to show up at your readings, sitting in the middle section, with storm clouds over their heads and Eeyore looks on their faces. Some of them are going to refuse to speak to you, but will hug your husband and give him their phone number, in case he "ever needs to talk."
  3. The people who are in your book, and who come off well, will also read it. One of them will hook up with another stranger at your book party, and you will shake your head and think about how your relationship, in ten years, can have come so far: from dating him, to writing about dating him, to setting him up with a reporter who has read your account of your relationship with him and now wants very badly to be introduced to him. You will wish your ex-man well. You will send him off into the night with a very hot chick, and your blessing.
  4. The people who are not in your book are going to read it and wonder why they were edited out. There will be plenty of them, because if you put every person you've encountered in your life into a memoir, the memoir will 7 million pages long, and very, very dull. That is the nature of life. Much of it is boring. The work of the memoirist is, alas, to canoe her way from interesting island to interesting island, skipping all of the uninhabited lava that lies between. Sometimes this will be painful, such as the time you had to edit out a 7-foot-tall ex-basketball player who told you, on the first date, that you were a "tardy person." You will have to do it anyway. Killing darlings is a miserable business, particularly when they are darlings that actually exist. Still, if you don't kill them, your editor will. And wouldn't they rather die at the hand of someone they know, perhaps to be resurrected in some other memoir, later?
  5. Random strangers are going to read your book, and this is perhaps the weirdest thing of all. The strangers will include ministers who will preach against your iniquity, male massage therapists who will wonder if you're coming to their town, incarcerated men who apparently didn't read the whole book because their letters will end with inquiries as to whether or not you really mind the whole "minor, behind bars situation." The strangers will also include women who have stories similar to yours, women who have stories fundamentally opposite from yours and want to tell you how you should have done things, and one guy who sincerely believes that he should tell you that he is "Praying for you and hopes you go straight to hell." It will be a contradictory experience on all levels.
  6. Reviewers will read your book, and review not just your writing, but your life, your looks, and your moral compass. One of them, in Great Britain, will literally quote from your acknowledgements, complaining that you've thanked too many people. He will have written a book very similar to yours, but not as commercially viable, and you will suspect him of a small jealousy issue.
  7. People in other countries will read your book. It will be translated into other languages, including Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, and Italian. You will wonder how on earth sentences like: "My feet were black with grunge unknown, and there Pseudo-Gere was, down on his knees," could possibly be translated. You will feed the sentence to AltaVista's gloriously named Babelfish, and ask for a simple Chinese translation.

    "???????????????????grunge ?????????, ?????????????Gere ???, ???????????????????," Babelfish will tell you, and you will say, "What?"

    When you feed the sentence back into the translator to be re-translated to English, you will receive this: "My foot is black by the grunge unknown, and has pretends to be Gere is, gets down in his knee."

    In Italian, the result is just as worrisome: "My feet were black with the disowned one of the grunge and us Pseudo-Gere was, down on its ginocchia." Down on its ginocchia will start to sound sort of appealing to you, in a peculiar country-song kind of way. You'll start to use the phrase. "I'm feeling a little down on my ginocchia," you'll say, and your husband will look at you oddly.

    Japanese: "My feet the unknown of grunge were black, imitation Gere, had returned home to that knee."

    You will thank the gods that there are actual translators out there, and not just Babelfish, who gets the gist, but has, by virtue of translation, turned an incident with a handsome but creepy foot-fetishist into an encounter with an unknown band of the grunge era, some sort of imitation-Nirvana, returning home to a kneeling position, post unsuccessful mosh pit.

  8. You will read your book and discover a typo you've never seen before but which has been in the book for myriad drafts and which is completely idiotic. You will keep quiet about it, hoping no one else has noticed. You will have been, of course, very snobby in the past about other people's typos, and muttered things about "was no one paying attention?" Now it will be you, and while you know that you were technically paying attention, and went over this same manuscript a million times with a red pen, here is the truth of writing a memoir: At a certain point, you're so tired of yourself that your brain literally turns to oatmeal and starts dribbling out your ears. You start to skim. You can barely make it to the ends of chapters. Your own life looks to you like the work of some hack novelist, and even though the events in the book are true, they start to look peculiar to you in the same way that a word, repeated too many times, becomes nonsensical.
  9. You will start your next book. Another memoir. You will wonder what the hell you're doing. You'll turn on your computer. You'll open a new file. You'll type the title and the words: A Memoir. You'll sigh a little bit, for the sake of your grandma, and your old boyfriends, and your childhood playmates and pets and siblings, knowing that you'll be hearing from them all, but bottom line, the stories of your life have turned out to be the ones you feel like writing, and even if you wrote a novel people would still read it and still think it's real. It would still be translated, and typoed, and reviewed. That's what happens when you're a writer. On a good day.
  10. You will be grateful.

Tomorrow: Nitty-gritty, how-to-sell-a-book stuff. Or, at least, how maybe to sell a book, and at least generate some pages.


÷ ÷ ÷

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes. She lives in Seattle with her husband and family.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Year of Yes: A Memoir Used Hardcover $4.95
  2. The Year of Yes: A Memoir Used Hardcover $4.95

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of The Year of Yes: A Memoir

3 Responses to "Memoirs — A Cautionary Tale"

    Greg February 15th, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    I find that strange - people's reaction to your literary references. No one would say that about a novel. As if they read novels to feel "smart" and memiors to feel "okay" about themselves - and if a memoir challenges they're "okayness", ie not haven't read enough novels, they feel betrayed by the genre somehow? comical.

    7ft Tall X-B Ball Playah February 15th, 2006 at 1:11 pm


    Please, please, please put me in your next book. And hurry up with it!

    H J Wimmer March 3rd, 2006 at 9:26 am

    Hi Maria,

    I guess you can count me as one of the (I am sure) many people that have read and enjoyed the Y O Y. I can't wait to see the movie...

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