The Occupational Hazard of Memoir Writing
by Alice Eve Cohen
Write your memoir…
Confess to your husband or __________ (fill in the blank: wife, friend, lover, doctor, parent, child, yogi, ex-boyfriend, masseur, etc, etc, etc) that you’ve just written a book about the most personal, private experience you’ve ever shared, and that you hope to publish it and share it with the whole wide world.
This is the most dangerous occupational hazard of writing memoir, and it must be approached delicately…as follows:
STEP 2A: FIND THE PERFECT MOMENT
I waited a long time for the right moment to tell my husband Michael about my book. The kids were at summer camp, and we were enjoying a rare, just-the-two-of-us vacation in Maine. The perfect moment finally arrived: A romantic evening, a glass of wine at the hotel restaurant, overlooking the moonlit bay:
“Michael, there’s something I need to tell you.
Maybe that wasn’t the best opening line. Michael’s look of adoration morphed to defensiveness, as he waited for me to continue.
“For the past year, I’ve been writing a book… about us…about our terrifying year.”
“You did what?! You wrote a book about our incredibly personal, and—I assumed, until now, private—family experience? I feel completely exposed!”
He slammed the wine glass on the table and walked out of the restaurant.
That didn’t go so well.
I understood why Michael felt exposed. What I Thought I Knew (Viking, 2009) is a memoir about my unexpected and terrifyingly pregnancy at the age of 44, fourteen years after being told I was infertile, a year before Michael and I were married. It was during an emergency CAT scan for an abdominal tumor that I discovered I was six months pregnant. Pretty personal stuff.
I sat at the table wondering how I’d managed to wreck the closest moment we’d shared in years. Finally, I paid for our drinks and went up to our hotel room.
“It’s not just that I feel exposed,” said Michael, as soon as I opened the door. “I feel usurped! Until tonight, I thought this was our family’s story. It’s no longer ours. It’s your story. My experience—the most difficult and the most important experience of my life—which I used to think was as important as yours, will be irrelevant.”
I knew that once he read it, he’d understand that at the heart of this book about our family crisis was a love letter to my family.
STEP 2B: GET HIM/HER TO READ YOUR BOOK
I finished the first full draft of my book that September, and asked Michael if he would read it.
“Put a copy on my desk.”
The manuscript sat on Michael’s desk, untouched, all fall. I replaced it every few weeks with new drafts.
“Please read it,” I implored him, when I signed with an agent in January.
“Put a copy on my desk.”
“Michael, it’s been on your desk for five months!”
Two weeks later, my agent had lined up several interested publishers, and scheduled an auction date.
“Michael, you have to read it! This is your last chance to vet the book. I can change anything you want me to, but not after it’s sold.”
The next morning, Michael climbed sleepily into bed as I was getting up.
“I read your book overnight, Alice. Good job.” He closed his eyes.
“Good job? Wait, don’t go to sleep yet.”
“Okay, okay,” he yawned. “I have to admit, it wasn’t as hard to read as I thought it would be. But… I come across as really bland! You made me this boring, saintly guy. That’s not me. I think I’m a lot more interesting than I sound in your book. Now I’m really tired. I have to sleep.”
With Michael’s help, and with Viking’s blessings, I added his imperfections. Ultimately, Michael became very supportive of the book, though in some ways we’re still dealing with the aftershock of our very personal story becoming so public. From time to time, he gently suggests that writing fiction might be more fun.
Despite the occupational hazards, I continue to write memoir. In fact, I’m in the middle of writing a new memoir. I just have to find the perfect moment to tell Michael about it.