On Episode 33 of the Hungry Authors podcast, Liz and I had a little debate about what makes a memoir extraordinary—and why it’s so hard for authors to get it right! Our chat was inspired by a post on Instagram from literary agent Carly Watters: “Why memoir is ‘so hard’ to sell.” In the post, Carly writes:
In other words, she’s saying, memoir has to be both relatable and unrelatable in some way. Easy enough, right? (No, lol!)
Then author and coach Leigh Stein jumped in in the comments with this:
I have so many thoughts! 😊 here’s one tip: most memoirists have a B story (something that happened TO them) but not a propulsive A story (something that they did). The non-famous-people memoirs that sell gangbusters have great A stories (Wild, Crying in H Mart, Educated). Find an A story! Go on a real journey (not just an internal one)!
Liz and I read this and totally resonated with it! What’s missing in most memoirs is the authors taking action—utilizing their agency—in response to an unfortunate event in their lives.
We were so intrigued by this conversation that we decided to take it onto the Hungry Authors podcast and have a little debate about what it means to go on that “real” journey and take action.
In other words: Do you have to do something crazy like travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia (a la Eat, Pray, Love) in order to have a story worth telling (and selling)? Or can a more reflective memoir in which you explore the meaning in a bad event be just as engaging and marketable?
Liz came down on the side of “reflection can be just as powerful,” and I came down more on the side of “you need to DO something interesting with your bad event.” We had a fantastic dialogue all about it and debated our perspectives in great detail.
Here’s where we landed: Your memoir has to have something extraordinary—either an extraordinary story of something that you did, or an extraordinary way of processing what happened to you. Ideally, you’d have both, but one will usually suffice.
At the end of the episode, we also promised a list of titles that fulfill both versions of “extraordinary,” so, without further delay, here they are! I’m also including a breakdown of the B Story (what happened to them) and the A Story (what they did in response) so you can clearly see how these two elements are working together.
Educated by Tara Westover
B Story: Tara’s parents don’t believe in educating their children and she suffers abuse from her older brother, whom her parents protect.
A Story (what makes it extraordinary): Tara runs away and fibs her way into Brigham Young University, eventually going on to receive a graduate degree from Cambridge University.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
B Story: Cheryl just went through a rough divorce and her mother recently passed away from cancer.
A Story: She hikes the Pacific Crest Trail as a way to process her grief.
In Love by Amy Bloom
B Story: Her husband is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer Disease and decides he wants to end his life on his own terms.
A Story: She helps him find an assisted suicide facility in Sweden and travels with him, where he ends his life.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
B Story: Liz leaves her unhappy marriage and realizes she hasn’t been living life on her own terms.
A Story: She travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year.
Julie & Julia by Julie Powell
B Story: Julie is stuck in a dead-end job and unhappy with her life.
A Story: She decides to cook through every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year.
I admit, I’m still puzzling through all of this. I can’t say that these books have an A story - something the authors went out and did in response to the bad thing that happened - which doesn’t sit well with me. And yet, they’re obvious bestsellers and fantastic books. So what’s making them so extraordinary? Let’s find out.
How to Stay Married by Harrison Scott Key
B Story: He discovers that his wife has been having a long-term affair with their neighbor.
What makes it extraordinary: Key tells the story of “what happened” with a mixture of humor and self-deprecation. His analysis is more of himself and his own mistakes in their marriage—while still being honest about hers—as he explores his anger and grief. Ultimately, he decides to fight for their marriage, and reveals all of the messiness of what that looks like.
Note that Key was already a well known and successful author prior to this book.
You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith
B Story: Her husband cheats on her and leaves her for his mistress.
What makes it extraordinary: Maggie is a poet, and everything about this book is lyrical and beautiful. It’s also a meta-narrative of her own writing process, as she explores how it feels to write about something hard as it’s happening. She can do this well because, again, here we also have a well known poet with a successful track record.
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
B Story: Chanel is sexually assaulted on the Stanford campus and becomes “Emily Doe” in the Stanford rape case.
What makes it extraordinary: Chanel reveals the behind-the-scenes of a terrible event that got national news, and yet no one knew her side of the story, even though she was at the center of it. She also shares her journey to refind her voice after having so many people speaking for her throughout this experience.
Everything Happens for a Reason by Kate Bowler
B Story: Kate is diagnosed with stage IV cancer.
What makes it extraordinary: She busts the prosperity gospel and the myth that “everything happens for a reason,” pondering the age-old question of how a good God can let bad things happen.
Strip Tees by Kate Flannery
B Story: She worked at American Apparel and witnessed the cult of personality (and sex) surrounding Dov Charney.
What makes it extraordinary: This is a fascinating tell-all from someone who witnessed the very public implosion of one of the biggest brands in the early 2000s. It’s also engaging and well written. I like that this book had strict boundaries on what was included and what wasn’t; it’s relatively short compared to most memoirs, and the author keeps the focus entirely on her experience at American Apparel without going too much into the rest of her life.
I’m definitely noticing some themes here. These books all have one of the following elements that makes them successful:
Discovering what makes great memoirs work has been my study of late, and I appreciate you coming along for the ride. I'd love to know what themes and ideas you're seeing here as well. Feel free to email me at email@example.com to let me know!