With the memoir boom of the 1990s over and the legacy of James Frey still lingering, why are memoir writing classes so popular?

By April Rueb

BookCourt, a charming bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, is usually a calm oasis for browsing and relaxing. But on this warm Wednesday night in March, about 20 women and five men sit anxiously in folding chairs. Young and old, black and white, college-educated and not, these people are all here for the same reason: to learn how to write a memoir.

This night BookCourt is hosting a free memoir writing workshop with the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. Taught by Melissa Febos, 29, a teacher, writer and author of the just-released memoir, “Whip Smart,” the class is meant to be a quick introduction on memoir writing, a little taste of what the Gotham Writers’ Workshop offers for almost $400 in a 10-week program. Febos begins the class with an assignment: write your life story in five sentences, in five minutes.

She calls time and hands shoot up. Febos asks a young woman to share what she wrote. The girl tells the class that she was raised in the Chinatown ghetto of Boston, a bilingual nurse chose her English name and that despite leaving China, her parents return often to visit. Febos gives another assignment: write your life story in five completely different sentences. A young man with a thick New York accent says he was born in the Bronx, raised by an Irish mother and a drunken father. The class quickly turns into a competition, each person trying to outdo the last with his tales of hardship.

Almost without realizing it these budding writers have hit upon one of the two basic components of a successful memoir: “Very good writing, and/or a story to tell,” said Elizabeth Stone, a Fordham University English professor. Stone teaches a graduate course, “Writing Autobiography/ Memoir” and has written a memoir, “A Boy I Once Knew: What a Teacher Learned from her Student.” Asked what her students struggle with the most, Stone said, “One of the things that makes memoir possible is being reflective about one’s own experiences and having a lot of experiences to be reflective about. I think it’s really difficult for people who are 20 or 21 to have that kind of perspective on their own lives.” Those evocative experiences and the talent to write about them are challenges faced by all aspiring memoirists, whether at an expensive college at Lincoln Center or the back of a small bookstore in Brooklyn.

Successful memoirs have always been a mix of smart writing and drama; however, memoirists today have it harder than ever before. Before the 1990s, memoir was a genre dominated by military heroes, politicians and men of great achievements. But in the 1990s, a shift occurred that opened memoir to anyone and everyone. In “Memoir: A History,” author Ben Yagoda explained that shift as an amalgamation of “more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture,” combined with “the empathetic 1990s, the era of Bill Clinton’s feel for pain, of Oprah Winfrey’s furrowed brow and concerned nod.”

Two memoirs about difficult childhoods, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” (1996) and Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club” (1995), opened the once-select world to anyone with a story to tell, according to Yagoda. “Both Karr’s and McCourt’s memoirs were also fabulously successful, taking residence on the New York Times bestseller list for a year or so each and ringing in a period in which publishers opened up their checkbooks and paid big (usually too big) bucks to ordinary people with troubled youths,” wrote Yagoda in his book. But publishers overlooked one of the key similarities between McCourt and Karr: their undeniable talent for writing.  What followed, according to Yagoda, were memoirs that “were defined and branded by, a particular ailment or condition. Their value tended to be less literary than social or journalistic in putting a human face on the problem.” People afflicted with a particular problem but with no past writing experience and often very little talent were writing successful memoirs.

But the empathetic 1990s are long gone, Hillary Clinton spends more time in the White House than Bill, and Winfrey recently announced that after 25 years, she is ending her talk show. A troubled childhood or a serious drug problem no longer guarantee a book deal, especially after the debacle caused by author James Frey and his successful—but later discovered to be mostly false—memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” about his time spent in rehab for drug addiction. Nevertheless, memoir writing classes are more popular than ever—a search of “memoir writing classes” yields over 12 million results on Google—and non-writers still dream of sharing their story. With extremely slim chances of their memoir meeting both of Stone’s requirements of experience and talent for success, what drives average people to spend the time, energy and often money, trying to write a memoir?

“Memoir writing can be beautifully cathartic,” wrote Juliette Borda, 42, in an e-mail. Borda, a Brooklyn resident, attended the free Gotham Writers’ Workshop hosted by Febos last March and turned heads when she asked Febos for advice on writing a memoir for children. An illustrator, Borda has written a draft of a memoir about her “impoverished childhood in a trailer park.” Borda wrote, “I did not set out to write about my life. I never thought, ‘Wow, do I have a great story to tell.’ ”

Borda’s lack of narcissism may ultimately be the key to success for average people who want to write a memoir in the post-James Frey era. Memoir is defined as a narrative of part of one’s life, either in terms of time or recurring subject matter. To accomplish that, a person needs to believe that their story is one worth telling. One of the most popular subgenres of memoir, celebrity memoir, is filled with famous people who presume others will want to read about their lives simply because of their fame.

The first step for non-famous aspiring memoirists like Borda is to find a publisher, a task which would have been much easier a decade ago. During the peak of the memoir boom in 1998, Marya Hornbacher’s memoir, “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” was published. The book was a commercial and critical success, selling over a million copies and getting nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. When the book was released, Hornbacher, then 23, was simply a young girl recovering from multiple eating disorders, alcoholism and dealing with then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder. “I wanted to write the real story of what eating disorders are: the unglamorous, the ugly, the honest side of a fatal addiction,” said Hornbacher.

Twelve years ago, an honest and graphic account of an eating disorder was ground-breaking. Hornbacher wrote about jamming her fingers down her throat until all that was left to throw up was blood. She wrote about being admitted into the hospital at 52 pounds and being given a week to live. Hornbacher wrote about eating disorders so that even the healthiest of her readers could understand her battle with weight and food. “This is a wish to murder yourself; the connotation of kill is too mild. This is a belief that you deserve slow torture, violent death,” wrote Hornbacher in “Wasted.” Hornbacher opened people’s eyes to a dangerous illness many people still viewed as an exaggerated diet.

Once considered a taboo topic, eating disorders were thrust into the mainstream with “Wasted.” Hornbacher is a talented writer, obvious by her nomination for a Pulitzer; however, regardless of her writing skills, “Wasted” would have likely been a commercial success because writing about eating disorders was still a novel idea. Released during the memoir boom, “Wasted” was destined for success with its radical subject matter and Hornbacher’s talents as a writer.

Average people were able to publish commercially successful memoirs during the 1990s because they wrote about previously taboo topics openly for the first time. What “Wasted” did for eating disorders, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s “Prozac Nation: Young and Depressed in America” (1994) did for depression, Dave Pelzer’s “A Child Called ‘It’: One Child’s Courage to Survive” (1995) did for child abuse, and Kathryn Harrison’s “The Kiss” (1997) did for incest. People had been struggling with these issues for years, but it was not acceptable to talk about them. Peter Birkenhead, author of “Gonville,” a memoir of his abusive relationship with his father released in March said, “Every single man I knew of my father’s generation was an alcoholic or a drinker. The generation before us was a secret generation.”

But almost 20 years after the memoir boom, what’s left to write about? Celebrity memoirs are still successful: Carol Burnett’s second memoir, “This Time Together,” was released three weeks ago and is currently number 4 on the New York Times’ list of hardcover nonfiction bestsellers. But for average people, people who have overcome an addiction or survived a difficult upbringing, memoir is no longer an easy field to break into. Thanks to the Internet and reality television, people, famous or not, can share all the minute details of their lives as they’re happening. Why wait months, possibly years, to read someone’s memoir when they’ve already shared their story in 140 characters or less on Twitter or in daily posts on a blog?

And if competing with the instantly available Internet didn’t make it hard enough for aspiring memoirists, they also have the legacy of James Frey to overcome. In 2003, Frey released his memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” about his time spent in a rehab center for drug and alcohol addiction. The book shot to number one on bestseller lists in the fall of 2005 when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club. By the beginning of 2006, reports started to filter out that Frey exaggerated and completely fabricated much of his memoir. Frey eventually admitted that he did make portions of the book up and future publications of the book included his apology.

Despite the apology, the damage Frey caused remains. Now, any tale of hardship is met with skepticism. Published in 2006, “A Piece of Cake,” is a memoir of the abuse Cupcake Brown suffered as a child and her subsequent descent into prostitution and drugs. In Janet Maslin’s February 3, 2006 review of the book for the New York Times, Maslin wrote, “Ms. Brown looks like the new James Frey, with a rough, lurid, not entirely verifiable story to tell. In ‘A Piece of Cake,’ she piles on layer after layer of degradation and pain, in ways that make Mr. Frey sound like a vanilla wafer.” Before Frey, most readers trusted memoirists to write their stories as well as they could remember them, but that’s no longer enough.

Photo: Amazon

Even with the odds stacked against them non-writers are still writing memoirs. Susan Parker, 48, wrote and self-published a memoir, “Walking in the Deep End,” about growing up in a family of Evangelicals, overcoming her bulimia and discovering after her divorce that she is gay. Parker entered into a cooperative agreement—shared production costs and shared profits—with a small self-publishing company, Silver Threads, in order to share her story. Nothing about Parker’s story is completely original. Religious memoirs have been written, as have ones about eating disorders and sexual orientation. However, for Parker, a human resources director, that doesn’t seem to matter. Asked why she wrote a memoir, Parker said, “Maybe I could help people.” Of course, Parker wants her book to be a success, both artistically and commercially. She wants to convey to her readers, however many that may be, that, “When we aren’t who we really are, it can make us sick.” Parker’s memoir has 16 reviews on Amazon, 15 of which are five stars. And commercially, Parker hopes to sell enough books to be able to do readings and volunteer opportunities related to her book full time, a possibility that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

But even if Parker doesn’t sell any more books, writing her story down on paper has already been rewarding. “It helped me get a sense of empowerment,” she said after seeing it in print. “Whatever is coming down the road, I can handle that too.” Whether Parker or Borda will have a bestselling memoir is still to be determined, but a memoir’s success cannot be judged solely on quantities sold. While a former student of Stone’s did go on to publish a memoir, her class isn’t about how to write a commercially successful memoir. Stone said, “I don’t know that every memoir that’s written is going to reach publication—but it doesn’t need to.”