Thursday, January 08, 2009

If it's wrong, it may be right. Depending on your ethics, of course.

After years of trying, I may have finally figured out how I've gone so wrong in terms of looking for a book publisher. I thought I was doing it right: I wrote a great proposal, and completed several chapters. I connected with an amazing literary agent with a fabulous track record of sales and successful authors. Perfect, right? Wrong.

Based on what I read these days, my problem seems to be that the stories I tell in my book about my life are true. And in case you're confused about what that means, let me elaborate: the stories I tell are true because they happened to me, in my personal life, in my experience, in my own reality. Are we clear?

Two recent news stories about authors and publishing seem to prove my theory. According to Publisher's Weekly, and additional coverage of the same story in The New York Times, author Herman Rosenblat didn't tell the complete truth in his "memoir" titled Angel at the Fence. His moving story related how he met his future wife (the "angel" in the title,) when she would toss apples to him over the fence of the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned. Amazing and incredible and in fact, untrue. Since the facts emerged about the story, Berkley Books has dropped the title but a smaller publisher may be picking it up and publishing it as fiction.

In a similar story, author Neale Donald Walsch, just admitted that his lovely little Christmas story, which recently appeared on Beliefnet, wasn't exactly his story. Sure, it came from a personal place. He recalled his son's kindergarten pageant rehearsal, and wrote a moving essay about how reversing one letter in a sign held up by children delivered the true message of Christmas. (The children were supposed to hold up letters that spelled out "Christmas Love" but the letter "m" appeared upside down so the message appeared "Christ Was Love."

Well, the truth is the story happened to someone else (Candy Chand) who wrote about it ten years ago. Walsch says he loved the story, had told it many times over the years and somehow "internalized it as my own experience."

If I wanted to be as generous as my sons were when I related this "mis-remembering" story to them, I could marvel at the flexibility of the human brain and what we are capable of convincing ourselves is true. I don't really have any ill will toward Walsch; it's just weird. How do you actually remember a kindergarten pageant your son participated in that never happened?

Let's get back to the title of this post. I suppose if I wanted to put my ethics on hold for the year, I could write a memoir that tells some of the most interesting, most moving, most courageous stories I've ever heard and make them my own. Unfortunately, I live the same life as countless millions, and happen to write essays about it. As it now stands, my book is a collection of such emotional hot buttons as how much I hate Victoria's Secret, the tumult and turmoil I endured when I learned how creating something called an "edible landscape" for a 4th grade science class can ruin a perfectly good Tuesday evening of Law & Order and the heartbreaking reality that I endured when I realized that visiting a Pottery Barn (or even paging through their catalog) could plunge me into a deep depression.

I'd love to write a book that captures the hearts and minds of millions. Or even hundreds. One that people can enjoy so much that when they put it down, they feel like they've just made a new friend. A book that will create a little community of people who relate to each other's experiences and wisdom. But I don't want it badly enough to lie.


dan said...

renee said...

Dan -

Thanks for this link. In fact, several comments in Publisher's Weekly also discussed the attempts people made to expose the story, with varying degrees of success.

Enough blame to go around to many on this one I believe.

Casey Claus said...


In writing a memoir, I think the biggest temptation for any writer is to "embellish" the story.
For me, it is the most simplistic of stories that seem to be the most honest and believable.

Honesty is not pretty, and it doesn't have a happy ending. It is somewhere in between. If the story is too good to be true, it usually is. - Chris Casey

renee said...

Hi Chris - I agree! Too good to be true is also known as a lie.

But the truly mystifying element for me is this - and I believe Sara Nelson posed this in her blog: why didn't anyone at Berkley Books pose that question, especially given the James Frey Million Little Pieces debacle in '05 - '06, and the perhaps lesser known but no less cringe-worthy "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life" "appropriation."

Do some people crave literay fame that much that they are willing to live through the deception and hope they'll never be found out? I guess so.

But here's an idea: it's called fiction. Write a novel - your own, not someone else's - and take your chances on finding an audience.

Thanks for your comments Chris - and for following along!!

PS Was sorry to see you close your blog BTW.