What is this, a shrink session? Hardly: It’s good advice for your next book, courtesy of this week’s NYT Bestseller List. Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but half of this week’s bestsellers in paperback are memoirs, including titles by U2 and Alan Alda. But the list also shows that you don’t have to be a celebrity to make it to the top: Just talk about your childhood, and you might be onto something.
You may have heard that the trick to a good memoir is to have a crazy childhood – and judging by the current NYT bestselling memoirs of Jeanette Walls and J.R. Moehringer, there’s some merit to that. But topping the NYT list this week is Augusten Burroughs’s memoir Running with Scissors, which seems outright scarring even in synopsis form: the author’s parents gave him up for adoption to their quack therapist. As twisted as this sounds, it’s also very funny. Apparently the trick to a great memoir is to have a crazy childhood, and a sense of humor about it.
In a Writer’s Digest interview, Burroughs seems calmly reconciled to his past, and wryly resigned to his future as a writer: “I did always know I was going to be a writer. It’s like growing up knowing that you’re going to inherit money or some dilapidated farm.” But he’s still surprised by the reaction to his memoirs: “It’s probably because when I’m writing something, I’m not really thinking about the fact that people are going to read it. I’d never be able to write if I thought about that.”
This raises an awkward truth about comic memoirs: to play your childhood for laughs, it helps to be fearlessly honest. The excruciatingly funny Davis Sedaris wrote a story called “Let It Snow” that’s hardly your typical nostalgic holiday tale:
On the fifth day of our vacation, my mother had a little breakdown. Our presence had disrupted the secret life she led while we were at school, and when she could no longer take it she threw us out. It wasn’t a gentle request but something closer to an eviction. “Get the hell out of my house,” she said.
The New Yorker loved Sedaris’ story, but as you might imagine, his sister wasn’t always such a fan of his full disclosure policy on family matters. So how did he make amends? A story about his sister being peeved about him writing a story. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, so I’ll just say it involves a parrot, and it’s one of his best stories.
So go on, start putting your own tragicomic memoirs into print, and remember: you can save the apologies for the sequel.