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Volume 19 Issue 38 | February 2 -8, 2007

Downtown Express illustration by Sara G. Levin

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Editors and memoirists share secrets of first-person writing

By Megan Gillin-Schwartz

Everyone has a story to tell, and lately, more people are publishing their personal tales. Despite the backlash toward the memoir genre following James Frey’s embarrassing admission that “A Million Little Pieces” was filled with a million little embellishments, and Augusten Burroughs’ current imbroglio with his family, who is suing him for distorting the truth in his memoir “Running with Scissors,” there continues to be an undeniable interest in first-person writing. Last week at Cooper Union, 300 of these would-be memoirists assembled for a panel on the subject organized by the media education and networking site, Mediabistro.com.

Daniel Jones and John Glassie, editors of The New York Times “Modern Love” and “Lives” columns, respectively; Gail Greene, New York magazine food critic and memoirist; Esther Haynes, deputy editor of Jane magazine; Elizabeth Kaplan of the Elizabeth Kaplan Literary Agency; and Bruce Tracy, executive editor at Random House, were moderated by Susan Shapiro, a Village-based teacher and author of five memoirs, including “Secrets of a Fix Up Fanatic,” published last month by Random House.

Shapiro asked the group to comment on the fact-checking process post-Frey. Jones explained how The Times requires the use of real names in their first-person pieces. At Jane magazine, which publishes anywhere from three to five first-person stories in each issue, names can be changed to protect privacy, but it is always noted within the piece. “The story must be true though,” Haynes added.

“We hope for truth and authenticity, but we do ask ourselves if something is genuine,” said literary agent Kaplan.

If passing the fact-checking process is the first step to a memoirist’s success, then protecting the ones you love comes second. “Always question, challenge, and trash yourself more than anyone else,” advised Shapiro. Greene said she let her ex-husband preview how he was portrayed in her sensual memoir “Insatiable.” “He checked for errors,” she explained.

Haynes warned of other first-person faux-pas: being boring or clichéd.

“Good first-person writing starts at one place, goes deep and ends in another,” said Haynes. At the same time, she cautioned that too many vibrant details can ruin a story. “If something has too many things going on, then no one can relate to it.” Still, most panelists agreed that writers don’t go far enough in their confessions, something Philip Lopate noted in the introduction to “Getting Personal,” his recent collection of first-person stories.

“Tell it, don’t hold back,” said Greene, who recounts sleeping with Elvis, Clint Eastwood, and Burt Reynolds in “Insatiable.”

Shapiro put it best when she told the crowd, “The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.”

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