Dystel & Goderich Literary Management: Miriam Goderich on “Taking Criticism”
I sincerely believe that authors (or any artist for that matter) must be able to defend their vision of and approach to their work. But, they should also have the ability (and humility) to look at the manuscript they’ve slaved away on for months or years and see it as a living, evolving thing that is never going to be absolutely perfect and that will probably benefit from an informed and caring review. They should also understand that in this agent/client partnership it’s in no one’s interest to purposely give bad advice and that only a sadist takes pleasure in inflicting pain. Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowing how to take criticism with grace is an indicator of success in our business. It’s often what separates those who have thriving writing careers and those who just sit around darkly muttering over their rejection letters.
One thing this blog has taught me — if people aren’t understanding (not disagreeing — misunderstanding) what I’m saying, I’m probably not saying it right.
Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1994), believes that the true essay is never formless. “It follows a track of someone’s thoughts…”
— from The Practical Writer: From Inspiration to Publication
Now that the piece is done and out there, I am thinking about the edits. And about the letters the piece is getting and how some of what I meant to say maybe didn’t get said although I’m mostly happy with it. Well, actually I am absolutely happy with it.
There were a lot of style edits in the piece (they changed all of my “I would” to “I’d”, for example) and those are par for the course because most magazines want their writers to sound like they fit in the rest of the magazine. So Brain Child made me sound smarter, Salon made me sound more casual, and Parenting made me sound like a Parenting robot. I don’t take issue with this — if I wasn’t willing to sound like the magazine I was targeting, I wouldn’t target it. If there comes a time where I don’t get edited that way, I’ll know I’ve hit the big time where it’s expressly my voice they’re wanting. I haven’t hit that yet (I may never) and that’s fine. I’m content right now to it being my voice through their stylistic filters. It certainly doesn’t change what I’m trying to say — it just makes it sound more cohesive when held up against their other articles/essays.
The big changes were adding more information to the piece. Some of this was practical (for example, the addition to “Per US Law” to the line about Madison’s amended birth certificate) and some of it was more in depth (for example, the first meeting with Jessica at the restaurant). The original essay was around 1500 words and this is at least 1000 words more and most of that is background.
The hardest thing to contend with within the edits was the ideas that people have around adoption. The editor (who was incredibly patient and thorough and kind) wanted to know why Jessica chose adoption. I couldn’t tell her that. For one, I would be afraid of misrepresenting Jessica. For two, I think that that part is Jessica’s story to tell. For three, I don’t think there’s anyway to effectively tell it without getting into a whole different essay. It’s a big piece to be missing there and I can see through some of the letters that other additions to the piece confused people or led them to think wrongly about who Jessica is and so I better understand why the editors wanted more about Jessica’s decision.
The big thing, it looks like, is the mention that the family reunion/wedding happened at a country club. It is very very very interesting to me that at least one reader immediately tied that (I think, his letter is confusing) to Jessica’s race. And then someone else assumes that Jessica’s wealthy parents must have bullied her into the adoption. The only thing that anyone can really know from reading the essay and seeing the mention of the country club is that we were at a country club. That’s it. But unfortunately, that doesn’t stop people from making those wrong assumptions. As the writer, I think that placing the event somewhere else would have helped but there you go — we weren’t someplace else. Probably I should have chosen another anecdote to end but I really do have those pictures (snap, snap, snap — three pics of Madison and Jessica in the sandtrap) and they really do sum it up for me. (I wish I could share them on my photo blog but it’s enough that Jessica gave me permission to share so much already.)
This is the challenge in writing memoir — how do I cast the truth in a way to reveal a more personal truth? Inclusion of the country club — while true — may have detracted from the more personal truth. But the irony is that I chose that in part to combat stereotypes about women who make adoption plans. I knew that it would strike people as inconsistent but I hoped that it would do a small part to illustrate the complexity of any adoption story. How many of us have personal stories that are consistent?
What the editor asked directly was, “She was sort of young but still, why adoption?” When Jessica and I discussed this I said, “They want to be able to sum it up so it’s a story they can neatly tell themselves.” I know this because this is just what I wanted to do. I wanted Jessica to have a Reason. It would have been easier for me if Jessica had a clear reason that I could say, “Here is her reason and I deem it good.” (I pretty much say this in the essay.) But I only had Jessica’s word on it. (Only, I say, like it’s the least important piece of it!) This is one of the things we discussed when we talked about the essay.
The transcendent Cecily commented, “I’d be interested in hearing what you have to say about the James Frey and J.T. Leroy scandals…”
I knew someone was going to call me on that ‘cuz I just wrote about how memoirs aren’t always 100% truthful!
First off, I haven’t read the books in question. Remember I generally only get my books in thrift stores and they aren’t showing up there yet. (This is why I didn’t read any Anita Shreve ’til about two years ago.) I figure in two years the shelves will be flush with discarded copies and maybe I’ll grab one then.
It looks to me that J. T. Leroy is sort of a grown-up Lemony Snicket — call it performance art. The whole fabrication (if it is one) is so outrageous that the “is it true or not?” is part of the story. It’s part of the marketing and the mystique. Also the books are marketed as fiction — maybe fictionalized autobiography but still, fiction. This isn’t true of Frey.
In my mind, lies are permittable in memoir if they are truthful. In other words, if a conversation that didn’t happen is created to illuminate a larger truth as in Vivian Gornick‘s walks with her mother. (However I do think — and I didn’t know this when I wrote the first entry — that Gornick should have been explicit at some point, perhaps in a note to her readers in the front of the book.) Any dialogue in a memoir is going to be a fabrication and likely scene changes, composite characters, etc. But the spirit of truth should underlie these efforts, which I believe was true of Gornick’s memoir although, as I said, I don’t think this is permittable in a journalistic effort.
Frey’s lies weren’t performance art and they didn’t underline the truth of his story. It looks to me (again, not having read the books) that he tried to sell the book as a novel and when it didn’t take, he switched to memoir. I wonder if at any point his heart started to sink when he realized he’d hit a home run of a bestseller. Maybe he didn’t think anyone would read his book and he could keep getting away with it.
One could argue that his book is entirely metaphor. That he felt like a “Criminal” (and I’ll add here that just reading excerpts makes me HATE his overuse of capitals) except that he never says, “I felt like” he says, “I was.” Also he trampled on other people’s lives for the book — most notably the lives of the families who lost their daughters to the train wreck. That’s inexcusable. Using the event for inspiration for a novel? Writers do that. Lifting it to add a gloss to his “Criminal” image? Indefensible.
What kills me is that you know 14 million people are going to go buy the dag book now. Listen, you want to read it? Wait two years and pick up a copy in a thrift store. Trust me. The shelves will be over-flowing.
Listen to this. This (click on the song title) is Sondheim’s favorite piece of work: Someone in a Tree. This version is from the original soundtrack of Pacific Overtures — I like it better than the version used in the recent revival although the revival has B. D. Wong and I have a small crush on him. The revival version, ack, the samurai sounds like he’s doing a bad imitation of the cowardly lion. But never mind that. This is the version I wanted you to hear.
I’ve been thinking about memoir lately and this song kept coming back to me. I was listening to it again while I was playing solitaire and waiting for Noah to be done with Hebrew class. Playing solitaire and listening to showtunes is my version of meditation; it always gets me thinking.
I’ll set the song up for you. Listen to how it starts so simply — there’s a narrator in this show and just before the song begins he says that there’s no record of the meeting that took place between the first European visitors to Japan and the Japanese sent to meet them but then here comes this man to say he was there. The part where he’s repeating himself, “I was younger than; I was good at climbing trees” — he’s trying to climb the tree that was there. Hear the music building? The way it repeats itself as it builds? There — his 10-year old self has just come in and scurried up the tree. “Tell him what I see!” he demands. Hear how radiant the music is when he arrives?
There were two witnesses to the event — the boy who is now an old man (they are both telling the story, they tell it together, they help each other refine it/rewrite it) and then later a samurai enters and says he was there, too, under the floor listening. So there are three people telling us — two witnesses and a witness remembering.
When we remember our stories and then relate them to others, they exist because we were there. We are the story — our vantage point becomes the part of the story that matters most. “I’m a fragment of the day,” sings the boy/old man. “”If I weren’t, who’s to say / Things would happen here the way / That they happened here?”. … It’s the ripple not the sea / Not the building but the beam…”
I love this song so much; no wonder it’s Sondheim’s favorite. I love this celebration of our creative memories, the way it acknowledges our limitations (the boy sees someone, “Someone very old” and the man he has become explains apologetically, “He was only ten” — perhaps the man he saw was not so old at all — who can tell now?) but also doesn’t saddle us with those shortcomings.
“There was someone in a tree / Or the day was incomplete / Without someone in a tree / Nothing happened here…”
* Note on the recording: This whole soundtrack is just stunning and it’s swiftly becoming my favorite Sondheim recording, which is really saying something. If you get a copy of the Broadway DVD that was on PBS a couple of years ago you can see Sondheim rehearsing this song with the actors and the look on his face while he’s watching them sing — well, it’s inspiring. You can also hear another version from a Sondheim retrospective here.
That title there — failure is inevitable — it sounds so pessimistic, doesn’t it? But every time I read a book about someone who writes or paints or otherwise creates, they fail a lot. See, the more you try the more you fail but the more chances you have to get it right.
See, success shouldn’t be the point because if you’re all about success then failure gets too scary. It’s the process. I was thinking about that because I have been trying to grind back to process more and more and trying to jettison the idea that the only work that matters is the work that ends up on someone else’s table.