By Guest Blogger Heather Seggel
When was the last time this happened to you: You’re well into a new book, enjoying the subject and the writing both, when the author takes an unexpected side trip to tell you about her horrible boss, or his dreadful parents, or the ex-spouse from hell. The writing changes tone and your interest in the book essentially stops there.
If you only read conventionally published works, there’s a good chance you have no idea what I’m talking about. But readers of self-published books are finding that all too frequently a good read is obscured by the author’s flapping dirty laundry. This needs to change.
If you had a crummy childhood or lousy marriage, you’re entitled to have your say about it. Journal to your heart’s content. It’s cathartic, and the writing can have great energy. But it doesn’t belong in print. Simply recounting something you’re mad about in the moment is not the stuff of memoir, much less a cookbook or business guide.
Consider a memoir by a young woman whose family took in several foster children. She railed against the children and went on at length about the agency overseeing foster placement when they finally denied her parents the right to take in any more kids. But her own story makes it clear that the parents didn’t supervise the kids, allowed them to live in squalor, and were using the system as a source of income with very little regard for the welfare of their charges. Lacking time and distance, the author jumped right into the emotional heart of things and failed her readers by being unable to see her circumstances more clearly.
Complaints like this in memoir are one thing, but they also turn up in self-help books and are notably unhelpful. A guide to relationships ground to a halt when I hit an entire chapter about the author’s boss along with coworkers at several jobs from which she had been fired. Her own stories revealed that she was late to work, did only the parts of the job she liked, and was consistently disrespectful to everyone, but blamed it on their collective bad attitude. Again, this was in a book about relationships. Is this the person you want helping you rank your chosen mate?
Venting in print feels great in the moment, but it marks you as immature and unprofessional. A writer doesn’t just write; part of the job is being selective about what makes it into the final manuscript. Look at how a consummate pro handles a tricky issue: “The many reasons I didn’t want to be this man’s wife anymore are too personal and too sad to share here … (I wouldn’t) ask anyone to believe that I am capable of reporting an unbiased version of our story.”
That’s Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, which opens with her acrimonious divorce. Gilbert passes along some more details about their relationship in the book (and her ex-husband was sufficiently bothered by them to write his own version of events). However, she frames the information and sets clear boundaries around it. This can work for you, too.
If your memoir relies on a real-life adversary, commit yourself to fairness. Look at your own behavior and that of anyone else involved in the story before launching in. Edit like a samurai.
Far better would be to write your cookbook with no mention of your horrible boss whatsoever. Instead, save him for fiction! I had a boss I couldn’t stand at one time — a tiny little blond guy with monofilament eyelashes and a voice that barely made it beyond the tip of his nose (we later became friends). On the page, he’s been transformed into a 5’11” garrulous redhead and, oh yes, female. Still a crummy boss, but a lot more fun to write about, and pretty much libel-proof.
Your story, whatever it is, belongs to you. Give it all you’ve got. But when you edit, remember: what you choose to say about others often speaks louder about you.
Heather Seggel is a freelance journalist and author of the ebook “7 Gateways to Self-Published Success.” She lives in Northern California and reviews books, including many self-published ones.