Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jessie Sholl on writing memoir

Jessie Sholl, author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding, and I talked a bit more after the show about writing memoir.  If you listened to the show, you would have heard some of what's here. If not, here you go!

How did Dirty Secret come about?

After a particularly difficult period in terms of my mother’s hoarding, I joined a support group for children of hoarders; I was shocked by how much shame we all carried because of our parents’ behavior. After all, it wasn’t our shame to carry, nor was it our secret to hold. Yet we all did. I was between projects at the time, so I decided to write about hoarding. By writing about compulsive hoarding and getting the secret out, I hoped to lessen the shame and the stigma surrounding it.

At any point, did you have any misgivings about writing such personal stuff?

I didn’t at all while I was writing the book. That’s because I have a strategy for when I’m writing nonfiction: I just tell myself that no one is going to ever read what I’m writing, so I can write whatever I want. It’s very freeing. Also, I tell myself that if I go into territory that’s way too personal, I can cut it down when I revise.

Right before the book came out I had pretty major anxiety about revealing all of these parts of my life that I’d kept hidden for decades. Before this book I was not very forthcoming with personal information, even to friends. I was very private and quite shy. (I guess I’m still shy.) Anyway, I’ve been really pleased by people’s reactions to the book and there’s nothing in it that I regret including.
Did you feel a need to allow your relatives read your manuscript?

I did, yes. Especially my mother. I let her read it and said if there was anything she strongly objected to, that I’d take it out. Luckily for me, she said “it’s the truth. Leave everything in.” Also luckily for me, she really likes the book.
Did you work off an outline?

Yes. I first wrote a proposal for the memoir, which was extremely detailed – broken down chapter by chapter and within those, scene by scene. I also included three sample chapters; the proposal was 100 pages long and it was a great roadmap to have as I wrote the book.

You were recently on 20/20, on an episode about hoarders. How did this affect the sales of your book? And how did this opportunity come about?

To be honest, I’m not sure how it affected sales. I won’t find out the sales numbers for that month until March of 2012. What’s that expression? Oh right: publishing is glacially slow. There’s always the Amazon ranking, but that’s more of a general gauge and most of the time isn’t all that accurate.

The opportunity came about because one of the producers read and liked The New York Times piece from May, about how children of hoarders deal with their own homes when they become adults. She contacted me, and things took off from there.

Any tips you have for memoirists?

I highly recommend telling yourself that no one is going to read what you’re writing—even if your book has already sold and you know that someone will read it. It’s just an easy way to trick yourself into writing freely. I also did a lot of brainstorming ahead of time for scene ideas, always keeping in mind the focus of the book. Since memoir usually covers a specific topic or period of time (as opposed to autobiography, which is the story of a life), it’s really important not to veer too far from the focus of the book.

One last thing: a good memoir should be as compelling and as rich as a novel. You could have the most unusual topic and the loveliest writing, but story and plot are still crucial. You still need to make the reader want to turn the page, to see what happens next.


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