I thought I knew what I was getting into when I wrote Gimme Shelter
. I have, after all, made a career of oversharing about my personal life. When the gods were handing out boundaries, I was getting seconds of bacon. I've written about sex, childbirth, motherhood, religion, politics — you know, stuff that readers generally feel so dispassionate and non-judgmental about. I've received a death threat or two, and dependably get the classic "YOUR STUPID."
I usually don't mind. Yet here's the thing — it still sometimes stings and surprises when it happens anyway. Not to a crippling degree, but if you've ever been flamed — and since you're reading this on the internet I'd wager you have — you know what I mean. That feeling that somebody just reached out of your screen and bitch-slapped you a little.
When you're a fiction writer, your work is judged primarily on its literary merit. Can you tell a story? Can you create likeable characters? When you're a straight up reporter, your work is judged on its accuracy and clarity. When you're a memoirist, you get the triple word score bonus of being assessed for your characters, storytelling, reportage, and overall merit as a human being. Welcome to the Glutton for Punishment Club; it meets right here!
In truth, the response to Gimme Shelter has been overwhelmingly kind. None of my close friends have pitched major hissies; the reviews have generally been nice. Still, when an excerpt ran in Salon.com a few weeks ago, it didn't take long for a few readers to declare me an "emotionally unstable" "gold digger" who should never have had children. Soon after, on another site, a commenter wrote that he could not imagine another book he would less like to read.
On the other hand, his may be the only list I ever top, so I've got that going for me.
I wrote a book about my search for an affordable home in New York City at the height of the boom. And yeah, I suppose when you put it like that, that does make me sound pretty delusional. Then to have the moxie to think anybody would want to read about it! Oho, that's rich.
But I did anyway and lalala I can't hear you!
At least there's solace in solidarity. I asked my memoirist friends for memorable helpy helperton feedback they've received, and here's what they said.
Judith Newman, author of You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman:
I said something in my book about wishing I had a gay son — one throwaway paragraph — and I got a letter from a woman saying I might as well wish my child had cancer. That was a joy!
Helene Stapinski, author of Five-Finger Discount and Baby Plays Around: A Love Affair, with Music:
I wrote an essay and started by talking about how mean the nuns were in Catholic school. It was very lighthearted and funny. But I got this nasty, nasty ass letter the following week from a retired Felician nun who tore into me and wished ill on my children. I was about to write her back a scathing, equally nasty letter when [my husband] stopped me and said, 'No. Send her a signed copy of your book with a note saying, "It's always nice to hear from my fans."' So I did. Sure enough, within a few weeks I got another letter from nasty ass telling me how much she loved my book and thanking me. I think when people read memoir they have a tendency to take it more personally than fiction. But then they forget there's a human being on the other end of their tirade.
Laura Fraser, author of An Italian Affair:
The danger with memoirs is that readers don't just attack the book, they attack you, and it's hard not to take it personally. I got a lot of people telling me what an immoral hypocrite I was to have an affair with a married man after my husband left me. The criticism was really personal, and undoubtedly a projection of the readers' experiences. Maybe the worst was, ‘You've been hurt and now all you want to do is hurt as many people as you can in return.' It must be said that I refused to go out on a date with him, too.
I think it's essential as a writer to distance yourself from your work. I always consider the ‘Laura' in the book as a character. While she is me, is also not me. She's a character in the story, and in memoir, the story is everything.
Diana Joseph, author of I'm Sorry You Feel That Way:
I let a reader review get inside my head just once. The reader said my book was a ‘sad and lackluster account of a woman with no redeeming qualities.' No redeeming qualities? As in zero, zilch, I am hopelessly beyond redemption? That seems harsh.
Therese Borchard, Beliefnet columnist and author of the forthcoming Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes:
How do I take it? I read the first line or two and then if I feel that knot in my stomach I don't read the rest. On my really insecure days, I don't read comments at all, because there is always a zinger that could ruin my day.
And she sent this as an example:
I do not find you amusing, and I cannot relate to what you write at all. I am frankly amazed that Beliefnet or whoever it is continues to pay you to do this. It's terrible. Get a reality check, lady. Your insights are nothing special, and your attempt at humor is just not good. You are not a good writer, either.
Neal Pollack, author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, Never Mind the Pollacks, and Alternadad:
I was once accused of child abuse, both directly and indirectly, because I dared write about the important topic of letting my child sample some gourmet cheese at the grocery store. As for not letting it get to me, well, I DID let it get to me and sent out a whiny email to a bunch of people that pretty much assured I would get mocked again in the same venue. It felt like, for a couple of days, that the whole world was high school and everyone was laughing at me while I stood at my locker. Then it passed and I had to continue with my boring life.
All of this leads me to ponder what it is that compels us, in the face of such withering scorn, to write about our lives. Look how many of us do it. Everybody's got a book, everybody's got a blog, and everybody's got an opinion.
It can't just be masochism.
Um, can it?
Maybe that person who called me "emotionally unstable" was on to something.
Or maybe it's because when it's good, it's really really good. Because for all the YOU SUCK, there are also, sometimes, kindness and connection and even comedy.
Read on, gentle Powells patron.
Sarah Thyre, author of Dark at the Roots says:
Most of the people I've met or have written me have ‘gotten' my book, in pleasantly unexpected ways. Who knew so many mothers transferred Lacoste alligators from one garment to another to ritzify their kids' wardrobes? And don't even get me started on my newly bulging gay following...
The only thing I felt a little icky about was the chapter on losing my virginity. Mostly when I signed books at my kid's school holiday bazaar and all the parents and teachers bought copies. I hoped they were just doing it to be polite and none of them would ever read it, but some of them have told me they did read it, laughing uncomfortably. The others never make eye contact, which means they could have read it or not.
But I don't regret writing about it, in the end. Made me horny as hell. My husband couldn't have been happier. That's the standard marital advice I give people who are disenchanted with their partners: write about losing your virginity. There'll be blood on the counters!
Laura Miller, author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia:
One weird guy who contacted me basically offered to supervise my further religious education, on account of my not understanding something about the Buddha which was a lot of New Age hogwash. But he was a cranky. 'Regular' people are not hassling me. They mostly just want to tell me their stories.
People confide in me about their husbands' affairs. People who never even told their moms have spilled their guts to me because of Baby Plays Around.
And Diana says:
Early on in my teaching career, students had filled out the end-of-the-semester evaluations, and one of the students wrote, "Every time Diana says 'Good morning,' it makes me want to vomit."
Whoa, I thought. I inspire nausea?
I mentioned this to my department chair who said, 'Well, it sounds like you pissed someone off. That's not a bad thing. Because if you're not pissing someone off, you're not doing your job. It's not good if everyone hates you, but it's also not good if everyone loves you, either.'
That makes sense to me. I think the same is true for writers. If you haven't pissed someone off, if you haven't provoked a strong reaction or made someone nervous or uncomfortable, then you probably haven't done your job.
I really love that essay by Dorothy Allison called 'This Is Our World.' In it, she's offering up how she defines capital-A Art: art should make us uncomfortable, she says, and art should raise more questions than answers, and art should make us look at things we don't want to look at. She also makes this point about how we respond to a piece of art reveals as much about us as it does about the art. I think about that a lot when it comes to those judgmental reviews — whether they're about my book or someone else's. I think, something about this story made that person feel something they don't feel safe feeling. So they react with outrage or fury.
Stacy Horn, author of Waiting for My Cats to Die, The Restless Sleep, and Unbelievable, says:
People are nice to me mostly, and I think that's because to act otherwise would be like kicking someone when they're down. Which is not to say there aren't people who are willing to do that, but they're not usually people who pick up a book called Waiting For My Cats to Die.
I get everyone's dead cat stories, which breaks my heart. (I want them to keep sending them though, just because I know what a killer it can be to lose a pet, and I believe I know exactly what words of comfort to offer).
But every book opens you up to this, even if it's not about you, and it still feels personal.
You write a book and people think they know you. The thing is, it feels good when they're right.
Oh hell, yes. It feels great. For every time I've rolled my eyes at some sanctimommy memoir (a-HEM) and thought, boy, do I have that lady's number, I've been moved and amused and gobsmacked by someone else's. And sometimes, a total stranger will email me and say, "I can relate," or "You made me laugh," and it blows me away.
So when people wonder where the hell I got the nerve to write a book and ask, "What makes you think you're so special?" the answer is, because we all are. We've all got our stories. And those moments when yours and mine converge are the sweetest imaginable.