By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Memoir as Schrödinger's Cat

Schrödinger's Cat refers to a famous thought experiment that presents a scenario whereby a cat in a box may be both alive and dead at the same time depending on an earlier random event.

What on earth could this have to do with the genre of memoir, or more specifically with my memoir in progress?

Just this: my memoir would appear to be lost in the relative space between two related but distinct genres. Is it a memoir with commercial appeal or a family history/life story of interest only to relatives and close family friends?

I met with my client yesterday prepared to discuss feedback from various readers of the manuscript. The consensus appears to be that, while the book is well written and the story worthy, many of the passages will appeal more to family and close friends than to the general memoir-reading public. One chapter in particular, an extended discussion of the subject's experience coaching his sons, crossed well over the family history line in the estimation of more than one reader. On top of that, my client and his wife have appealed to me to include more scenes about the children (children who, for the purposes of literary punch, promise nothing to work with; they would seem to be paragons of filial perfection.)

That last request would seem to kill the cat once and for all. The book, as stands, falls squarely into the family history box.

Hammering the nail into the coffin of this box is my editor's latest feedback: it would seem that my client's story is not all that unique. According to the publisher she works for, about one third of the submissions she receives have as a theme the refugee/immigrant/self-made man plot-line. As if to bury this hatchet of news into my skull, when I arrived at my client's house yesterday, what did I see on the table where we do our work but a copy of the book German Boy, which recounts a story quite similar to my client's.

Yet...I am not ready to bury the cat. I believe my client's story is one that could have wide appeal to a general readership. I believe there are aspects of his story that stand out from the crowd. And I believe, along with my client, that his voice is one that deserves to be heard.

So today I return to the drawing board. With the help of my friend and editor Kathy P., I am going to give it another round. I am going to identify a dramatic point in the narrative and start from there. I am going to hone in on the passion that drove my client to achieve what he did. I am going to axe whatever does not fit in with this theme. And (per my husband's advice) I am going to attempt to enliven the narrator's voice.

I may end up with two distinct books this way, but at least I will not have a dead cat on my hands.


  1. I commend you on the daunting task of rewriting a major portion of the book. I think the idea to focus on a dramatic event which shaped the person is excellent advice. --Linda Bird

  2. Postscript to my above commend: I recently read a memoir called "Paper Children" about a topic I am highly interested in (Polish immigration). I really wanted to like the book, but I simply did not find any of the main characters to be likable as portrayed. And I sympathized to some extent with the character whom I was supposed to dislike. -- Linda Bird

  3. Thanks for the comments Linda. I have been avoiding rewriting but once finally started on it yesterday, I felt geared up. I think I will be able to rework things without sacrificing too much of what I have written.
    As for your comment about Paper Children, characterization is another area I have struggled with. My husband had much to say about that when o going over the manuscript. How to bring out the subject's voice in a way that does him justice has been a long process. Hopefully readers will like him, though!