Now, What Happened Again?

I feel a little bothered–maybe even disturbed–about something I noticed in reading memoirs.

When I go to write memoir reviews, I tend to remember them by their schtick. You know: the memoir about the father with Alzheimer’s, the one about the college-age woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, the girl from Texas with crazy gun-toting alcoholic parents,  the woman who secretly taught women Western literature during the Iranian Revolution, the man who learned gambling as part of Chinese culture while still a child, the young woman who had sex with her father, the girl who slept with hundreds of men. You see what I mean?

This is all well and good. After all, I am writing about the girl who lived over a bomb shelter and in front of the city dump with the garbage man father.

But does it mean that all memoirs have to have schtick to make them memorable?

I eagerly raced through New York Times contributor Alyse Myers’ memoir who do you think you are?, thinking, “Wow, this is a well-written exploration of a sad and horrifying mother-daughter relationship.” It seemed as though Myers’ mother resented her daughter (more than Myers’ two sisters). The narrator is almost a Cinderella character, her mother a wicked and cruel mother.

Myers becomes independent at a young age in response to her relationship with her mother. She is driven and successful. Finally, she finds the perfect man to marry. She is nervous for him to meet her mother. When they do meet, her mother asks him what he sees in her daughter. Yet the man is charmed by Myers’ mother, and the mother even tries to impress a little by baking a cake–something she didn’t do for her daughter.

How does Myers go from being the abused outsider of her family to “being there” for her dying mother? To even wanting her future husband to meet her mother? The book shows the path.  Excellent story.

But when I go to remember the story, it’s difficult. I have to reread the book. I don’t have that hook to grab onto and reel in the plot elements from my memory.  And why? Because the book has no schtick. Sure, it’s about a horrible mother-daughter relationship and there is much to be learned from reading the book. But many memoirs showcase bad parent-child relationships. Many take place in the 1960s as this one does. In New York City, as this one does.

Does that mean the book’s weakness is that it doesn’t offer a memorable image?

As readers, sometimes we make fun of the schtick that memoirs are made of, but when it comes down to it, is that what makes them books that live on in our imaginations?


Filed under Book Review, Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Memoir writing theory, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

55 responses to “Now, What Happened Again?

  1. This is an interesting topic. I’ve long recognized and loathed my own self deprecating schtick-it is what I get the most positive comments on and yet I can’t crank it out on purpose…it just needs to come to me.
    I agree that it is good for a story to have an anchor…something to hold on as we remember what we like about it. Perhaps memoir needs a more of an anchor than other non-fiction – by the very nature of memoir.
    I remember this.
    I want you to remember it so I am writing about it.
    i feel these things about this incident.
    I want you to feel them too!

    If we can tap into our reader’s feelings, and engage them with our story, the concept of schtick might become overrated and something that is unneeded. Just some thoughts. xx

    • Jaye, I really like how you put that with: “I remember this . . . feel them too!” Yes, that really gets to the heart of why we write memoir.
      I’m not sure about schtick becoming overrated. I had thought so (thinking it’s all about the quality of the writing) until I realized that I couldn’t remember this book very well and had to dig back into it to write about it. Then I looked up reviews online and saw that readers are torn, so maybe it’s not ONLY that she didn’t have any memorable schtick. I think that reading memoir is such a close up experience that they can all feel the same or similar after awhile except that the schtick works as the trigger for the reader to remember.

  2. I believe that all narrative media needs to include schtick. It’s there in life, so it should be in art. — Along with tragedy and predictability and irony and the biology of it all. The best books and films include the entire essence of what it means to be human.

    • Joey, that’s what I’m thinking is that the schtick is a necessary part. It’s what makes a story unique. And then the “entire essence of what it means to be human” is the universal part of every story. Honestly, without the schtick every memoir narrator I read could “be” me, at least in my mind when I’m reading.

  3. Good point, Luanne.

  4. The schtick you write about reminds me of a movie pitch –> give a taste of the story in about 15 emotion-laden words. Maybe taste = schtick.

    • W, the pitch is about the idea, right? Not the plot or the quality of the cinematography or anything else. So is the idea of a memoir that the girl slept with 100s of guys or with her father? Is it a premise? Sort of a see what happens when a woman secretly teaches Iranian women western lit? Taste and by that I think you mean a “bit” could be a glimpse, but that doesn’t really hook someone because they may get more confused than feel a pressing need to see said movie.

  5. Good point, Luanne. While I agree with jeannieunbottled that schtick could be the same as a movie pitch, that nugget of the story that stays with you, what I think you’re picking up here is that somehow each story, each memoir has to have something exceptional that makes it stand out from the rest. Good writing, good storytelling is not enough when pitching your book. Either you have a hook that makes your story exceptional (like you slept with your father) or you lie (e.g., A Million Little Pieces). With the book you’re talking about here, was there nothing that stuck in your mind, no one image? The title seems powerful, especially as, I assume, it was something the mother said to her daughter. I don’t think not having a hook is a weakness really. More so, our culture has so normalized the sound-bite, the 140-character summary that we’ve forgotten what it is to reflect on the whole of a book, not just its hook, if it has one.

    • Marie, I am thinking that they need what makes them unique. That’s what makes them standout from something that is strictly universal and that then blends in with 100s of other stories. While I thought schtick might be a necessary evil I am actually beginning to think maybe it’s just necessary to make a book memorable to the reader. And isn’t that what we all want? As both readers and writers?

      • Good point. One’s book needs to stand out somehow. I just wonder, if you can’t find a way to make your story unique, is there a point in writing it? That’s the challenge I face with my own life, that it’s so much like what other people have experienced. Even if I write it well, you may forget what I wrote about because it’s not much different from the stories of other dysfunctional families.

  6. Interesting topic, Luanne. I’ve grappled with this same dilemma in reading memoir and writing my own. Does a memoir require some shocking event or schtick to move it forward? Perhaps the answer depends on the reader. I’d like to think that a reader might be motivated to read stories that reflect their own, so that perhaps they might find some solace and comfort in the words. And that one person’s experience could be universal. A requirement for people to read an ordinary story? Good writing and story telling and some truth that the reader can learn from the pages.

    • I’m starting to move toward thinking each memoir needs something to make it stand out. But it can be simple. Carol Balawyder’s self-published memoir is a simple story (in short stories) of grief and doesn’t have any particular schtick at first glance. The writing is unusual in a lovely, lyrical way, but there is nothing particularly “unique” about the story itself. But there is a striking image. She smartly uses it for her cover–a stained glass window. This image shows up in the book and becomes burned into the reader’s memory because the book itself and the writing style is reminiscent of stained glass. So I am thinking that even a visual image like this is enough for the reader to use as a hook for memory.

  7. As someone writing their first book, and a memoir to boot, I read all your posts with great interest Luanne. I’m fascinated by all you bring up here, what a thought-provoking question. The story I’m writing happened over 30 years ago and takes place over a three year period in the late 1970’s. I’ve known for all that time that I needed to tell the story and now, here I am, writing it. First, I had to convince myself that I could do it but as I delve deeper and deeper, when I come up for air, I find myself asking but what is going to grab the reader about this story? Who is going to be remotely interested? I have learnt from reading your wonderful posts and comments here from your amazing writing community that firstly, memoir writing is something to be embraced and that we empower not only ourselves in the writing of it but the readers who are changed by it. Secondly, I’ve learnt that whatever else is done, the story must be so well written that something from it lives with the reader, striking their heart, not to be forgotten. Finally, I’ve learnt that schtick is important. I think.
    Now I’m wondering what mine is 😉

    • Sherri, ok, how am I supposed to wait to read this? “30 years ago and takes place over a three year period int he late 1970s.” Such mystery!
      That’s one way to grab readers–to make them curious about the story! Maybe think of schtick has something that will make your story unique, make it stand apart from others only in an original factor. OR if you have time read what I wrote above to Rudri about WordPress blogger Carol Balawyder’s memoir. In that case it’s the visual image that I remember so vividly that the whole book comes back to me in a flash.
      I want to know what your schtick or image is, too!!!!! Can’t wait . . .

      • I did read your comment to Rudri and found it fascinating! Now, I don’t make a habit of this and hope you don’t mind, but just in case you want to satiate your curiosity a little, I have written a memoir book blurb on my blog for anyone who might be interested in finding out just what my book is all about. I really struggled with putting it all into a short blurb and have changed it several times. I’m still not 100% happy with it and will change it again a few more times nearer the time of publication I’m sure (but a while before that day!). I don’t want to give too much away but also want to hook prospective readers with a taster. Anyway, if you would like to have a quick read, here is the link, and if you do, I’d love to know your thoughts… ! Thanks so much Luanne 🙂

  8. I agree that schtick seems to resonate with the memoir reader. The memoirs that stick in my brain are the one’s that have a strong, almost unbelievably shocking entry hook. As a reader, I look for the deeper meaning in the story- the “truths” that surface, perhaps “truths” I can possibly relate to. “Truths” such as a belief in the power of love to lift up and better the sorriest of characters, the crumbs of forgiveness left behind, even the empty nothingness that can persist to the end. These are the beautiful ordinary and universal “truths” that we all live or experience at some point in our lives. I find it fascinating to walk beside the character and study human nature in all its glories and flaws.

    Great post; made me think!

    • Lynne, isn’t it the truth, though? I mean, I read “The Kiss” about 100 years ago and can never forget it. I wouldn’t say the writing is any better than Myers’ book, but boy how can I forget the stuff that makes her story unique?! That said, if Myers’ book were better written than Harrison’s, I would probably enjoy reading it a lot more because I love a well crafted book!! Yes yes yes re the universality of our stories. As much as I love the unique aspects of the memoirs with schtick, the whole reason I read memoirs as a genre is because of the universality!

  9. This is such an interesting subject, Luanne. I’m certainly no expert on memoirs, but I would image degrees of “schtickness” vary from reader to reader. For me, I don’t need necessarily need something earth shattering to remember a memoir; how the story is told and the connection I make with the writer is more memorable. Oh, Marie brought up the lie factor…if someone is writing a memoir and stresses because they don’t have a schtick, will they resort to lying? It took me a long time to purchase another memoir after A Million Little Pieces…I was furious!

    • Jill, the lie factor! Coming right up: next Thursday :). I’m going to review a memoir where I bring up the question of accuracy . . . and lawsuits.

  10. Sounds like ‘schtick’ = hook. A book may be wonderfully memorable without it – IF it gets read. But the whole point of having a hook is to get someone to read it – to convince us it’s something we haven’t already heard. No matter how well-written a book about a bad mother-daugher relationship is, if that’s the description I get, I feel it’s so familiar I’ve heard it numerous times and immediately think about the big names that have done it. How will this one top/compare? Pass the schtick, please.

    • The more I think about this and discuss it with people the more I think the way I was thinking of schtick is hook for the memory more than hook as a marketing ploy. That said, your point here is well taken. We want to be excited about reading a book before we begin. If we feel we’ve already read it before, how can we get excited?

  11. I don’t think it’s necessary, but it probably doesn’t hurt!

  12. Great question — one to be wrestled with but not easily answered. Are you reading memoirs in general, or primarily memoirs that have been published by trade publishers? Commercial publishers buy books that will sell. They edit and market them to sell. What’s easiest to sell? Books with hooks, books with memorable gimmicks. Over time, what’s available shapes what readers expect — and buy. Which in turn affects what publishers will take a chance on — and which gradually and insidiously affects what writers write. It’s a rare writer who can create her own niche, so writers who want to find an audience often write for a niche that’s already established.

    Memoir is a genre. It’s got its requirements like any other genre. Bending or — gods forbid! — violating the requirements becomes a big risk for agents, editors, marketing departments, and writers. And who’s driving the bus? Theoretically it’s the readers — but, as with any other genre, readers’ expectations are shaped by what’s already out there. They expect a hook, and when they find it, they remember it. Once they’ve found the prize, the rest of the story fades into the background.

    Commercial publishing is losing its stranglehold on what gets published. I want to believe that this will eventually increase the diversity of the books out there, but I’m skeptical: I see so many good writers making a beeline for genres (and subgenres, and sub-subgenres) with a well-established market, and tailoring their work to reach that market. Good writers who combine or transcend genres are probably going to have as hard a time as ever.

    • Susanna, I don’t think I expected a hook and instead was a little irritated with “commercial publishing” that we’ve been trained to find one in our own writing, but I was dismayed to realize i couldn’t remember Myers’ book because there was no hook for my memory. If you see above what I wrote to Rudri I realized during this discussion that a strong image can work in place of schtick. Carol Balawyder’s beautiful memoir was self-published, so no commercial publisher involved, and what makes me remember her story of grief as unique from other stories of grief I have read is the image of the stained glass window.
      I also think Shel makes a good point that the hook is what makes her realize the book will be unique and not too similar to what she’s already read. And I interpret that as needing to be excited to read a new book. We need that spark of curiosity so that we make the effort to obtain the book and start reading it.
      Like you, I had hoped that with commercial publishers losing their “stranglehold” that it would be good for writers and readers alike. If writers move to genres as a way to survive, does that mean we lose our “literature” or does it mean that we bring “genres” into literature?
      I have becomes skeptical that the move to self-publishing is going to be positive for readers in the long run because we’ve lost too much in the editing and vetting process. This also will be harmful to writers, both self-published and other.
      I haven’t really addressed small presses here, and I guess I would need statistics on marketing of small press books to know more.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Susanna.

  13. Luanne, I read “Notes On A Life” by Eleanor Coppola (Francis Ford Coppola’s wife.) Have you read that? It is a very interesting memoir by the wife of a very interesting person. You could say her schtick was the marriage to the film director, but what I derived from it, was, that, no matter how diverse the different roles and jobs Ms Coppola had had over her lifetime, the different things she did all connected. When, without reading the book, one would think them very different and unrelated.

    I am sure when constructing a memoir it is important to have a “mission statement” or something the literary world would call it. A hook. Or a template, as I like to say. And this woman needed none. She was simply the wife of “The Godfather’s” director.

    • Somewhere not too long ago I came across that book and wanted to read it. I actually am on break from buying books right now as I have shredded my budget and have a pile a mile high to read, but I would love to read it. Thanks for bringing it up, Hollis. It’s true that famous people or people connected to people have an automatic hook so they don’t have to come up with another one. And there is something about the sheen of the celebrity glowing over the story that makes us not read the book the same way. I am like that in reading writers’ biographies, for instance. Or old film or stage star bios. In writing a memoir there are a few ways to focus oneself. One way is to write one sentence that describes what the book is about. Another way is to come up with the MDQ: the major dramatic question. Et cetera . . .

  14. Mom

    Everyone who reads them wants to be a little voyeuristic, so yes the schtick is a part of that. But I personally expect that more in a celeb memoir. I guess I want something deeper (like really good writing) when I don’t know the face on the cover

    • Hi Mom, so nice to see you over here. I know what you mean about really good writing. That’s one reason I was kind of amazed at not being able to remember Myers book–because I thought it was good writing when I was reading it. But maybe it wasn’t good enough. Maybe if the writing itself had been even better I would have remembered the book better. And re celeb memoirs–how many times have I read or started to read one and then, ho hum, it wasn’t that good. Just because somebody has had an exciting life doesn’t mean they can write a compelling memoir.

    • Yes, that is definitely true. Sadly the front loaded memoir doesn’t have as much to prove!!!! Still it’s fun (maybe not for true writers) but fun for us, to dip into these celebs’ lives!

  15. First off, Luanne, thank you so much for your lovely words about my memoir. I found it interesting how the image of the stained glass stuck in your memory. Maybe covers ARE important.
    I tend to agree with Marie in 1WriteWay when she says:” … our culture has so normalized the sound-bite, the 140-character summary that we’ve forgotten what it is to reflect on the whole of a book, not just its hook, if it has one.”
    Of course, memoirs written by famous people don’t really need a schtick. Readers simply like to peek into the rich and famous. It’s pure entertainment. But these are not necessarily the powerful memoirs, the ones that make you become a better person, force you to examine yourself or comfort you.
    A strong memoir is one that moves the reader, whether it has a schtick or not. That strength, I think, has as foundation the writer’s attempt at going deep. It’s scary because, unlike fiction (although it can be argued that much of fiction is somewhat autobiographical) you can’t hide behind characters. You are literary naked, but it’s this transparency that makes it interesting and allows readers to identify with the writer. 🙂

    • You know what? You reminded me of some memoirs that affected me so strongly that were written by a celebrity, and that is because she was also a wonderful writer. OK, now I know what one of my next reviews will be :). I love that expression “literary naked,” and I agree that the transparency is what makes the story interesting. In fact, your last sentence states better than I ever could why I love to read memoirs!

  16. Excellent analysis Luanne. I often wonder the same thing about fiction writing. So often I hear that your fiction needs to be fast paced and action filled to grab reader’s attention. The advice is built on the foundation that people don’t want to read about ordinary lives or characters like themselves. I disagree. I’m particularly fond of stories about ordinary people and the relatable obstacles they face. I find beauty in the spectacular unfolding of everyday people’s lives. I think it’s all in the telling. I look at writers like Francine Rivers, Terri McMillan, Nicholas Sparks, even Jodi Piccoult (although she does like to write about stories pulled from newspaper headlines). It’s the WAY these authors tell stories about ordinary people that have readers aching for more. Perhaps my theory applies to memoirs too. Maybe the schtick (love that way of putting it!) is the way the writer tells the story of their life. The way they describe everything that occurs and the way they cause the reader to empathize is what will stick with the reader long after they read the last page.

    • Faith, I love that you took this to fiction. Yes, what kind of reading world are we in when every book has to have a hook in the opening paragraph and the writer rushes through everything and never lets us linger? Although 19th century writer Henry James is not everybody’s cup of tea (as he takes his style to the nth degree), he’s a good example of a writer who taught writers that a novel didn’t have to be an exercise in adventure, but could explore character and psychology instead.

  17. Good question. But then I mix up all kinds of books together. I often can’t remember the genre, but I do remember a good story.

    • Elyse, I find that so interesting because I’ve seen a lot of people do that, not remember genres, and yet sometimes genre helps orient us as readers as to what to expect from a book as we start to read. Does that make sense? But experimental writing is all about blurring genre boundaries! In some ways genre is so important: we go after scifi, utopian, romance, horror, memoir, chiclit, wherever our past preferences lead us. In other ways, it holds us back from reading books we would love because they are marketed outside our genre boundaries.

  18. Great question, Luanne. If i can’t remember the bones of a book, I don’t think it’s a good book. The best memoir I’ve read was Patty Hearst’s story (Every Secret Thing) – man, did that have good schtick!

    • Dianne, wow, that’s a blast from the past! I remember reading a long article in a magazine about her. Was part of it printed in a magazine or even serialized? On another note, I wonder if she really wrote that book completely herself. OK, I went and looked it up. She had a ghost writer, Alvin Moscow. I really wonder how many celebrity books are written by ghost writers. We know how darn hard it is to write a book. It takes years to write well. And there are a lot of ghost writers out there who are sworn (contracted) to secrecy. They are sure writing for somebody! Patty Hearst’s schtick is fabulous and hardwon, though. She went through a lot, no matter how you feel about her actions.

  19. I find this a really interesting question Luanne. I’ve often thought I couldn’t write memoir because I don’t have that really compelling event or series of events that’s happened in my life to make anyone interested enough to read it. But I think the same also applies to fiction, which I do write – there has to be some kind of hook for the reader to want to pick it up.

    • Andrea, otherwise why do writers and publishers bother with book blurbs, right? According to Penguin, the reason a blurb needs a hook is because people only look at the book for a few seconds in the store. But I don’t think most people buy their books in stores any longer. So I suspect that what people read online is even shorter than a blurb! The so-called blurb has to have a hook and provoke emotion in the reader (Penguin). It’s not a bad thing, but a fact of life. That said, does the book have to have the hook? Or just the blurb? Hah. And does that hook have to show up in the first paragraph? The first page? When? Hubby and I finally started watching Outlander (which we haven’t read) and that first episode seemed to take FOREVER to get going. I knew the hook already so stuck with it, but was irritated at the length of the initial section of the story. So maybe I am just as bad as the hordes that demand adventure and events, no matter what I wrote above to Faith!

  20. A schtick is a mnemonic (my word of the week) device for sure. When I think of some of my favourite mystery writers and their series’ they definitely have a schtick that helps you sum up the plot but it’s not the schtick that makes them stick. It’s the quality of the characters and the way the story is told. If those central things weren’t solid the schtick would be powerless.

    • I like cozies, and they definitely have their schtick! For instance, Koko the cat and his owner Qwilleran who doesn’t mind putting on a kilt. Mary Minor Haristeen, the postmistress and horsewoman, and her cat Mrs. Murphy. But it’s the good stories that keep me coming back to those books.

  21. I have dual feelings about this, Luanne. I believe I have (unfortunately) a bad habit of skimming books. It is one that really means something, that catches me up and carries me into reading all the words, that makes a true difference. I read every word of some of the books that I have passed on to you, memoirs of Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and the series that began with “Angela’s Ashes,” are ones that stand out, they may have been very dramatic, but sometimes, honestly I am one who enjoys this feature. I believe there are others who find true gifts and meanings in life stories that show perseverance, truth, character development and values. Your memoir will have this, the rising of the truth, getting the lies unpacked… This is just my opinion, which is not one of a ‘great reader’ but at least, an honest ‘skimmer of books!’ Smiles, Robin

    • Robin, wow, that would be a great post–the topic of skimming or carefully reading books (or something in between). I read an article once about how fast readers unintentionally skip even whole paragraphs without realizing it. Are you talking about that kind of skimming or an intentional skimming to get the gist of the book? Once I understood what I was missing by being a fast reader I slowed down and began to enjoy more. I honestly think I was self-pressured into reading too fast because of early education reading contests. I always had to take first place (and did) and that meant I had to absorb a ton of books. So I read really fast, not realizing I was actually skimming in parts.
      I so agree about wanting to find in books “perseverance, truth, character development and values.” YES!

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