Domenica Ruta quote
Joe Muscolino, head staffer at Penguin Random House’s Biographile, recommends these five pieces for Book Country writers.
Here, as part of our month-long “Good Prose Month” series, the Copy Chief of Random House provides a fascinating collection of obscure and playful writing distinctions, from A(ntiques) to X(-ray). Continue reading
It’s not unheard of for writers to turn their personal journals into a memoir — but what about emails? Two friends vowed to write honest accounts of their lives once a week as a way to keep in touch after graduation. Over the next few years, Jess and Rachel exchanged detailed emails about their trials and tribulations — jobs, men, the whole gamut of life in your twenties — while moving from country to country. Now their joint account will be published in May by Gotham as GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND.
We asked Jess and Rachel to share their unique publication story — of how a casual email chain between friends turned into an inspiring memoir about being twenty and finding your way in the world.
Rachel: Do you remember the night of our graduation from Brown?
Jess: Uh, yes. Obviously. I wasn’t that drunk and we’ve only just turned 29.
Rachel: Okay, prove it. What do you remember about the pact we made that night?
Jess: We were sitting on the back steps of the house we lived in with our friends in Providence on Governor St. I think it was raining and it was really late – everyone else had already gone to bed or they were still out. And you and I were sitting outside under the awning and discussing how since we’d been through the past four years together, we felt so close to each other and to our other college friends. But we also knew how easy it is to let friendships fade away after graduation, no matter how close people are.
Halloween season is officially here, and on Book Country we’re spending the last few weeks of October writing about things that scare us: Ghosts. Werewolves. Being chased. Evil. Realizing your reality is not quite like everyone else’s. Fear, in general, is a writer’s treasure trove: Who doesn’t love a scary story?
As soon as I picked up SOME NERVE by Patty Chang Anker, I started thinking about the other ways fear relates to writing. SOME NERVE is a hybrid between a Memoir and a smart self-help book about overcoming fears in everyday life. (Below Patty dubs the genre of her book an “immersion memoir.”) Patty shared her thoughts on the experience of writing a book about fear, and some fantastic tips for some of the fears writers face most: throwing out their work, reading in front of an audience, having the world read their innermost thoughts. Writing fearlessly–read on to find out how.
In writing SOME NERVE, how did you work through the fear of baring so much to your readers?
The very first chapter I wrote was about my struggle with clutter which was hugely personal because your stuff tells the story of where you’ve been and what matters to you. The emotional fears of letting go were at the heart of why I was afraid to take new steps in my life. When we cleared the clutter, we started with the hardest thing to part with – a box of my work triumphs from a decade earlier. That was excruciating! But once that was gone, everything else was easier to let go of, and it made room to envision a new future. It was the same with writing the book – by getting at something very personal first, the rest was easier to tell, I felt free to be myself.
If you’ve spent any time on Book Country’s Memoir writing genre page or on the Discussion Boards, you’ll know that I am mad about memoir. Domenica Ruta’s Spiegel & Grau debut, WITH OR WITHOUT YOU, is billed as a “darkly hilarious chronicle of a misfit ’90s youth,” but don’t be fooled into thinking this isn’t serious work by a serious new writer. Ruta writes with disarming candor about life growing up with her vivacious, drug-addicted mother, Kathi, and also of her own struggles with alcohol and her subsequent recovery. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is nothing less than the story of a writer claiming the truth of her own life, however subjective that might be.
LS: It seems to me that the very thing a memoir writer needs to make their work successful—bare-bones honesty—also make the prospect of publishing a memoir terrifying. WITH OR WITHOUT YOU is particularly candid: No one is safe from your gaze, from your mom to your dad to your high school boyfriend to yourself. How did you maintain that level of fearless disclosure as you wrote? Did you ever have doubts about making so much of your life public, and if so, how did you overcome them?
DR: The advice I gave not too long ago to a friend dabbling in memoir was to write the first draft as though you were already dead. What would you say if you never had to hear any criticism from anyone ever? This is a good point of departure for writing the first draft of anything, even fiction, but it is especially helpful with memoir. You cannot censor yourself in the early drafts or you will destroy the integrity of the work. In the process of rewriting the drafts that followed, however, I totally considered audience, both personally–like my family–and the larger public. Through the process of rewriting it became clearer to me what was necessary to say, what was bitterness I needed to let go of, what was harmful to others, what was an essential truth I couldn’t hold back. These are not decisions I could make up front; it’s a process of discovery. Then, when it was all done, I told myself any fire that comes my way as a result of what I’ve written is a fire I’ve earned honestly.
Funny memoirs are hot right now: from David Sedaris to Tina Fey to Chelsea Handler to Bloggess, this is the age of the popular funny book. To get some tips on how to write humor, we turned to famous WireTap radio host and I’LL SEIZE THE DAY TOMORROW author Jonathan Goldstein, whom Sedaris calls “one of the funniest and most original writers I can think of.”
JG: A lot of the material in the book was drawn from the weekly column I do for The National Post, so that forces me to write each week. It’s an amazing gig that allows me to write about whatever I want, though I usually keep it to sandwiches, television, and candy. I’ve been writing it for over 5 years and, almost like an OCD thing, I’ve never failed to get one in, never missed a deadline. I number each one and the most recent one was #308.
NG: Your radio show, WireTap, is produced for the ear. How did you modify your writing for a reading audience?
JG: Writing for the radio is often about keeping people from turning the station or keeping them from giving more focus to whatever else they’re doing as they listen. You’re fighting for their attention, whereas writing for the page assumes having a person’s full attention as a part of the writer-reader agreement. This allows you to be more digressive and expansive–some might say more rich and literary, others, more arty and indulgent.
At Book Country, we really believe that in writing, there are no absolute rules. Since we want to become better writers via conversation and true engagement with other writers, we take pains to avoid being didactic about what writers should or shouldn’t do.
That said, Nevena and I do agree on one hard and fast rule:
Every writer should be reading David Sedaris, especially writers who want their work to be funny!