HOW TO WRITE A MEMOIR/PERSONAL COLLECTION OF ESSAYS LIKE SEDARIS, BURROUGHS, VOWELL, KLOSTERMAN, AND NOW SLOANE CROSBY:
So you want to be a successful memoirist/personal essayist? Follow these ten steps and wait for the book deals to roll into your mailbox!
1. Write about your upbringing in ways that make it sound charming in its quirkiness (e.g. the Vowell/Klosterman strategy), charming in its weirdness (the Sedaris strategy) or terrifying (the Burroughs strategy). Under no circumstances should you have normal, perceptive parents who were socially adept with no strange habits whatsoever. No one wants to read about that.
2. Write about high school and college, but make sure you don’t make your experience sound too fun or interesting.. Make sure you write about your social and academic struggles and/or humiliations so your readers can either relate and/or feel superior. Do not be popular at college or high school! This is the kiss of death. Make sure you paint yourself as kind of a loser.
3. Write about the shitty jobs you’ve had. Remember, some of your readers may have shitty jobs and want to be successful writers themselves. You have to give them the glimmer of hope that they, too, will be someday interviewed by Terry Gross on “Fresh Air”.
4. Write about religion but only from a distant “my family wasn’t that into it” or “my family was into it but I’m not now” perspective. Stating “I still go to mass every Sunday, yep, sit in the back pew” will kill your book deal.
5. Write about your family, of course, but choose a strategy (see #1) and stick with it. Make sure you are alternately embarrassed in front of and embarrassed by your family. Loving parents are ok as long as they’re generally clueless.
6. Write at least one chapter/essay as a mash note to New York City. If this can be combined with the shitty job (see #3) all the better. Make sure you refer to New York in ways people who have never been to NY will not understand (e.g. “I lived in the seventies”) but would like to pretend they do. Describe your small and crappy apartment. Extra points if you can work in a 9/11 reference.
7. Be gay.
8. If you can’t be gay, then address both the fact you have chosen your dates/relationships badly (e.g. dated strange, almost psychotic partners) and behaved poorly in other situations (e.g. blown it with the potentially perfect partner). Do not admit to having a healthy romantic relationship unless you catalog your previous poor choices and frame your current relationship within a lens of redemption (e.g. the Jancee Dunn method). Describe at least one sexual encounter gone awry.
9. Reference slightly obscure pop culture as much as possible. Bands, television shows, etc. all work. Your readers will recognize these references and think that if they write about, say, the first time they saw “Twin Peaks” then they too can be successful memoirists/essayists.
10. Include a few drug/alcohol experiences but do not get into sad, “I’m a drug addict" territory. That’s a different type of book (exception: Burrough’s Dry). Don’t forget to frame these experiences as more or less harmless but connected to #s 2, 3, and 8 above when appropriate.
And how does Ms. Crosley acquit herself? Well, she’s sort of like one of those hitters who either roll a grounder to the pitcher or knock it out of the park. The first few essays left me rolling my eyes and wondering if the book was worth finishing. Then, in rapid succession, “You On A Stick” (required reading for every woman who ever dreaded the “will you be my bridesmaid?” request, esp. from someone she doesn’t know very well), “Smell This” (about finding a small bead of poop on your bathroom floor after a dinner party), and “Lay Like Broccoli” (about the author’s return from the vegan desert) rendered the time spent with Ms. Crosley worthwhile. Still, I read I Was Told There’d Be Cake in just a few hours; so borrow the book from a friend or library as I would struggle rationalizing dropping fifteen bucks on such a quick read. I wasn’t wowed by most of the book although a few essays (at least by comparison to the bad ones) shined through as worthwhile. Pretty good, but didn’t rock my socks. Maybe next time.
(P.S. The author’s back cover pic is hawt.)