Memories, Lighting the Corners of Minds
July 29, 2012

I have picked up books again but the books and reading and even my relationship with them feels different. Dad will never again ask me what I am reading. I will never be able to talk with him about his favorites. That loss of such an important influence in reading as well as in beliefs and values leaves an empty hole in my heart. But so many memories remain and they provide some comfort.

I feel fortunate that friends are gathering around with warm words and I asked one, literary agent extraordinaire Janet Reid, if she was interested in removing her professional shark skin (used on annoying writers), and taking over this part of the editor’s letter this week. She was, and she did. See why this agent, whose livelihood is selling books to publishing houses, believes memoirs don’t all have to be published to be important to literature.

* * *

“I’ve had an interesting life.”
“I want to help people avoid the mistakes I’ve made.”
“I want people to know they can survive that stuff.”

You wouldn’t think these phrases could make my blood run cold, would you? But they do. I’m a literary agent and part of my job is visiting writing conferences and talking to writers about their books.

I’ve learned to be wary of writers who are so terrified they can't speak and look like they just might throw up (on my shoes if I'm lucky.)

Silver-haired ladies packing pink notebooks with stories about their lives, often accompanied by photo albums, cookies, and grandchild-made clunky jewelry are more terrifying than outraged romance writers (don’t call romance “bodice rippers” and expect to live) or petrified-by-fear first time authors. They are the most terrifying things we face. They are writers on a mission and they can’t believe I’m not going to help them.

For years, I’d stop these writers, as gently as I could (which is to say sometimes it wasn’t at all), and tell them memoir was “a difficult category” (as though some aren’t) and absent some amazingness like they’d changed a law, forced an investigation, or earned notoriety of the worst sort, these books were not going to sell.

So yes, I said “I can't sell this” to parents of murdered children; to men and women who survived and thrived despite years of abuse; to men and women who had pulled themselves out of the most abject circumstances through sheer determination and strength of will. And if you think it was thoughtless, or dismissive, or that it didn’t haunt me, I hope you’d be wrong.

These people came to me with purest of intentions; they didn’t want money, or fame. They’d be on Oprah if they had to but all they really wanted to do was tell the girls in the coal hollers of West Virginia that there was life outside of the only place they knew. They wanted to comfort the sick of heart; encourage those who carried unbearable burdens. They only wanted to help, and they came to me for encouragement and I turned them away. Not easily, not happily, but turned away nonetheless.

We told them to self-publish of course. We all had our patter about the value of self-publishing but the underlying attitude was “this isn't important enough for many people to care about or read.” And by “this” we were saying to people “your life isn’t important enough for people to care about.” And to those people who had survived their own apocalypse, it was as if we said there is no greater good will come of your suffering. Not in those words of course, never outright. But when you are a survivor you’ve learned to read what is not said.

This went on for years. More people and more stories than I can calculate. To cover the pain of what we did, we indulged ourselves in the only remedy we had: we laughed. Among agents there is one topic we all groan about and share stories: memoirs.

But all of us hate this situation. We have to say no to so many people, for so many subjective and often irrational reasons (no I can’t sell cozy mysteries without a craft theme) that these pure of heart and empty of anything but altruism people broke our hearts. But we are masters at concealing that through joking around, so we did.

It went on for years. Then one day, a small piece fell into place.

I went to the annual conference of biography writers last year in Washington DC. Biographers International Organization (BIO) is a terrific organization filled with serious writers who know how to have fun. I attended several panels, took copious notes, and learned a lot. I soon realized how much biographers depend on written records, and how often those written records are letters.

Letters that have gone the way of the dodo bird in our new electronic world. Yes we still send cards and thank you notes, but when was the last time you got a long chatty personal letter from your auntie in Ireland? And I’m not talking about the Christmas letters that are copied and sent out wholesale to near and dear. Real letters? I can tell you when I got the last one: thirty years ago.

That was last year. This year, the second piece fell into place at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I realized personal memoirs would be the only written records of what it was like to grow up in West Virginia before electricity. Before a lot of things. Someday in the not too distant future, if you want to know what it was like “back then” these memoirs will be the only way to know.

Thus, these memoirs can serve a much greater social purpose than simply memoir. They are the written records of how we lived. It isn’t an indulgence to write them. It’s a social imperative. There may not be a lot of people who want to read these memoirs. There may only be one. But that one might be a historian doing research in the far distant future and if we want them, those kids of ours, to know what it was like, we have to tell them now.

And with that importance comes a responsibility: the memoirs need to be more than stream of remembrance. They need to be almost a form of reporting. People verifying facts, talking to other people from that time to get alternate view points. A “reported memoir” like The Night of the Gun by David Carr.

Here’s what David Carr says about his book:

In one sense, my story is a common one, a white boy misdemeanant who lands in a ditch and is restored to sanity through the love of his family, a God of his understanding and a support group that will go unnamed. But if the whole truth is told, it does not end there. The book will be fundamentally different than a tell-all, or more commonly, tell-most. It will be a rigorously clear-eyed reported memoir in which the process of discovery will be part of the narrative motor . . . For instance, my brother asked if I was going to give him credit for bailing me out after I was arrested for possession of pot as an 18-yr.-old in a Wisconsin state park. I had not even remembered the incident. You remember the story you can live with, not the one that happened.

I haven’t heard anyone else talking about memoir like this yet, so I have a feeling I may be a voice in the wilderness for a while. And there’s always the 3:00 am fear that I am completely and totally wrong about this. Only time will tell.

But in the meantime, I’m writing a form reply to give to every person who queries me about what I’ve come to call Non-Commercial Memoir. I hope to encourage them to see the higher social purpose of their work, and encourage them to do the tough work of writing a reported version of their lives.

I’m going to be very interested in how this is received. I do know one thing now: it’s a helluva lot better than only saying “no, I can’t help you,” to people who deserve more.

* * *

(Contact Ms. Reid at jetreidliterary @ If you are or want to be a writer, her blog is a must read.)

Upcoming Book Festivals and Fairs:
Two antiquarian book shows—on in New York, the other in Colorado—are up this next weekend. Check them out if you are or will be in the area. While some or perhaps many may be out of financial reach, it is a blast to be able to come so close and admire them—and who knows, maybe you’ll find something just right for you.

Location: Denver, Colorado
Site: Denver Merchandise Mart – Expo Center
Festival: Rocky Mountain Book & Paper Fair
Date: August 2-4
The Friday Night Preview Party (admission is $10 that also includes Saturday admission) offer attendees the opportunity to shop the room first from 5:00-9:00 pm and also include Saturday admission. Saturday’s hours are from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm; admission for this day only is $5. On this day there will also be book appraisals and a panel discussion: Books Into Film. Vendors will have on display and for sale antiquarian and rare books, maps, Western Americana, postcards, travel brochures, art prints, posters, old photographs, prints, illustrations, and all other manner of ephemera.

Location: Westfield, New York
Site: Eason Hall (near the McClurg Museum)
Festival: Westfield Book & Paper Show
Date: August 4
For a mere $5 admission, attendees can chat with and purchase from the vendors antiquarian books, photography, fine art prints, maps, sheet music, ephemera, postcards, historic documents, magazines, trade cards, and more. Hours are from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.

What I am Reading This Week:

  • Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream by Jason Fagone. I read this one before, presumably soon after it was published but for some reason—the emptiness I touched on above?—I picked it up early last week. It’s a yucky read; I feel myself cringing at the gross descriptions of the food shoveling of into body to say I am enjoying it, but aside from that it speaks of food and I feel a kind of odd filling up of that empty spot even with this book’s detractions.
  • Cookoff: Recipe Fever in America by Amy Sutherland. This also is a second reading of this book. This time around it aroused my interest sufficiently that I have already designated a couple of my recipes I plan to enter in smaller contests (where prizes are in the hundreds of dollars). Again, there’s a kind of comfort here that the food descriptions gives me right now.
  • America Eats! On the Road with the WPA by Pat Willard. There is something about food reading this week, I guess, that has me by the throat (stomach?). I began this book a while ago but put it down about ten percent of the way into it and didn’t pick it up again until now. Obviously, it’s a food week. I think this book is the most satisfying of the three for it combines my love of history, Americana, and story into one literary feast that is filling my soul’s need for comfort.

The Pub House:
New Maritima Press is a house with only two books out so far, yet those books appear to herald a publisher worth watching (and reading). Both books are by the same author but a quick perusal of one tells me they are good. First up is the second of the two books, Treasure Island: The Untold Story, a look at the truth behind Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel. Outer Bank’s North Carolina author John Amrhein is considered a leading authority on the 1750 Spanish fleet, which left Cuba for Spain with a cargo valued at nearly a million pieces of eight. It encountered a hurricane, driving the ship more than 500 miles off course to land at Ocracoke Inlet in NC where it met two brother merchant captains from Virginia to whose care was entrusted the treasure. But the brothers, having been ravaged at the hands of Spaniards stole the treasure and sailed, leaving in their wake a diplomatic conflict that engulfed four European nations. This book expands on and follows that story. The Hidden Galleon: The True Story of a Lost Spanish Ship and the Legendary Wild Horses of Assateague Island follows the story of several ships in 1750 on that same journey but this particular one, encountering that same hurricane and also blown off course, came to rest on Assateague. This has given rise to the legend of the wild horses on the island who, it is claimed, come from a long-lost Spanish galleon, and were the focus on a children’s book (1947) and a movie (1961).

Imaging Books & Reading:
It’s a !

Of Interest:
Deckle detecting” sounds like a very odd hobby if you didn’t know that deckle edges belonged to books of old (and sometimes to modern books with a claim to status). This is a short but interesting blog post from the Economist that talks about how they developed and why today’s machine-made ones are poor substitutes for the originals. (And why some buyers have to be reassured that they are not inherent flaws.)

Until next week, read well, read often and read on!




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