Damon, a ghostwriter, finished the editing of yet another memoir he had written for a successful business person. Someone who climbed the corporate ladder and managed to become CEO of a large company, for a few years. And then, reading between the lines (Damon was good at that), the CEO was let go for underperformance.
In interviews, the CEO was pleasant, if dully conventional. The type of man women want to marry, and then not talk to their friends about much afterwards.
Damon’s draft title for these sorts of memoirs was invariably, Tales of a Typical Midwestern Childhood Much The Same As Everyone Else, until something more poetic, if less descriptive, came to his mind.
The CEO hoped for a best-selling memoir that could be his calling card for his next career phase as a public speaker. Making a living by dropping words of wisdom from his mouth, as his favorite TED speaker does—the one he mentioned 200 times within 30 interview sessions.
To celebrate finishing the final draft, Damon opened a chilled bottle of Pinot Grigio that he had been saving for the occasion. After a few glasses, he wrote a letter to himself about the tired tropes of memoir writing. The ones he had seen too much of that should all be flushed down the toilet. Technically some of them were clichés, but ‘tropes’ had a more literary sound to it, and saying that word impressed his clients. They knew they were dealing with a literary sort of person. After another glass of crisp Italian white wine, Damon accidentally emailed it to his entire client list.
The 10 tropes of memoir writing that should be flushed down the toilet:
The story of when I was called into the principal’s office.
The writing assignment this week. Let’s gut this standard inclusion into most business memoirs. Everyone knows it’s a trick to make you, a rich and/or famous person, relatable. You are not.
In 1984, you received a stern talking to from the principal for stealing Joanne’s eraser? It doesn't make up for the thousands of workers you terminated last year, or the personal assistants you’ve bullied.
“Things my dad taught me”
Your dad didn’t have the internet. Next.
Where I was when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded.
I don’t care. No one does. If you insist on keeping this in your published edition, I will ask NASA to restart the space shuttle program just to launch all 200 copies of your memoir into the sun.
My childhood shaped me into the person I am today.
No. I don’t think so. If you are a pop singer, please don’t make us think that your mother scolding you when you didn’t do your homework when you were 6, is the reason you were born with genetically perfect vocal cords and went on American Idol when you were 19.
Talking of music, I’m now listening to Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on repeat, and singing Bad Memoir over the chorus. Time for another glass of Pinot. Which leads into…
“My parent (usually Dad) was an abusive alcoholic, and I managed to SURVIVE.”
Statistically, 99.99% of children of alcoholics survive. That alcoholics are so proficient at making babies, while being so bad at taking care of them, is an unfortunate quirk of Darwin’s Theory that we all just have to live with.
This one cuts closer to home for your ghostwriter. I was born into the most alcoholic, yet un-abusive family, to one day hit the pages of a best-selling memoir.
Mom drank ten beers, then fell asleep on the sofa.
The next day, she did the same thing again.
A real page turner!
I was bullied.
When the well-built handsome men and gorgeous women I interview say they were bullied in school, it means something different for them than the standard dictionary definition of "bullied."
Being the smallest boy out of two hundred in my high school class, I don’t need to read how you weren’t invited one weekend to a party that everyone else went to.
Your struggle was one of popularity.
My fight, was a fight for survival.
But some tropes exist for a reason, so why not?
“Being bullied in 7th grade at Greenfield Middle School gave me the internal drive to one day prove myself and achieve what I have today. I said to myself, one day I will return to the halls of GMS, holding a copy of my own memoir, and those who bullied me, will know I paid $50,000 to a fabulously talented ghostwriter to have it created, and they will apologize.”
As for me, despite being 20lbs lighter than anyone else at school, I was not bullied. Bullied kids were predictable. A bully would kick the back of their chair, they would look back for one second, say “cut it out”, and then go back to their studies. The next day the exact same thing would happen again in that order.
If my childhood in a family of alcoholics did anything for me, being unpredictable, or using the jargon of adolescence, “being weird”, was one of them.
My family (in West Virginia) was so poor that….
What’s more Midwestern than the Midwest? West Virginia. All aspiring writers should spend a few months of their childhood there to gain the street cred to write into the myth of third-world poverty in WV.
Or be radically different, and admit your childhood was middle class like most people, and The Seventies Show reminds you of it. It does me.
In the days before the Internet, we had to do things (in nature, with physical objects) or else we would be bored.
Yes. We ALL know that. And isn’t it great that now, we don’t need to be bored, and even nerds can find friends and even be popular, on the internet.
My quirky hobby is…
This can have potential, if your hobby is not baseball, football, singing, dancing, computers, or any of the dozens of other normal ways teens occupy their time, by thinking they might be on the edge of greatness with something, that they are not actually very good at.
My one chance at true love left me, when I was __ years old.
I hate to break it to you, but...Stacy with the great hair, or Greg with the soulful eyes, was not the love of your life. It was just the hormones. If you were on a desert island, like Tom Hanks in Cast Away, you would also have fallen in love with the volleyball. So, if your infatuation was based on the way he/she smiled that melted your heart, we don’t need to hear more.
An astute reader, adept at detecting subtext, will have figured out by this point that I did not meet the love of my life in high school.
My close beloved relative died young (and became very important to me afterward).
I wrote something very snarky here. That I just erased. Because, yes, the pain of the human experience can really hurt. But straining to make lost ones sound more significant in your life than they actually were, by hyperfocusing and trying to create meaning out of small memories, may sound hollow.
This is reminding your ghostwriter of the time (and it was only the one time) that his 10-year-old cousin, and best friend at the time, committed suicide, and your ghostwriter didn’t cry at the funeral, and people asked him why he wasn’t crying, but he didn’t have an answer, and people thought that was weird.
I’m suffering from a very special medical condition (which makes it impossible to keep pizza down before noon, poor me)
I have news for you, EVERYONE is suffering from a medical condition. The narcissist in all of us turns our brightest and healthiest face to the world. But, when I have attained most people’s confidence, they will tell me of some difficult issue they are dealing with, that they would rather not have the whole world know about.
But, if your condition is truly something that only a few people in the world have, please let us know about it.
Nicholas Vujicic, who wrote 50,000 words in Life Without Limits without having any arms or legs, is a good example. You might have a few inconveniences. He needs to ask someone to push the elevator button to survive.
I’m important because, I made important decisions in important meetings (and I’m rich)
There are a million people in America that have been a “senior manager” at some well known company. Good for you, getting paid for all your hard work and study. But it doesn’t make you interesting.
If you were a stripper in Barstow Califonrnia, that would be far more intriguing to the average reader, who simply reads books to escape from the tedium of daily existence.
I found God, Yoga, and/or a Plant Based Diet.
Shove your plant based diet up a koalas rear end. My bad. Koalas eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves. They must walk around smelling like the yoga studio before class.
Thinking about it more, these topics are not suited for a ‘General purpose memoir’ but could be a bestseller in the ‘Here’s Another Thing to Control in Your Life’ category.
The human mind finds almost nothing more satisfying than having something to control. If you put test candidates into an empty room with a red button on a table, 100% of them will study the button, push it, and then push it some more, and then talk to it to see if that makes anything happen.
Give us your unique spirituality practices, your rigorous exercise routines, and your highly controlled diets, so we can push those buttons, and tell our friends about it.
And then everything was fine.
In a good novel, at the end of every chapter, things are not fine. The cliffhanger is what makes us begin reading the next chapter. All the boring parts will be packed into the middle of that chapter. Those words function mostly to make the cliffhanger at the end fun again. Finally…something is happening again!
In a bad memoir, at the end of every chapter, the world is at peace again after the narrator (who gained useful some useful life skill by being cleverly perceptive) fixed the problem or situation he was just facing. Often, a ‘luxury problem’ such as how to get into Harvard Business School, or getting that other Co-CEO fired for abusing the expense account
Writing these guidelines has been much more satisfying than writing my own memoir. Someday I will get that started. I’m going to get all my clients to stop wasting my time with their run of the mill childhood stories, and get them to tell me some real stories by sending this to them now. [send]
And one last thing, I always thought the song, Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays, was by a Northern Irish band singing about their experiences in The Struggles. I just learned they were rich kids from Dublin who made it all up while they were on tour in America.