Monday, April 13, 2015

On Writing Memoir: the Literary, the Legal, and the Loophole

BinderCon LA Recap #5

Eileen CroninMermaid: A Memoir of Resilience 
Wendy OrtizExcavation: A Memoir 
Leigh SteinLand of Enchantment
Quinn Heraty, Esq.   

“So we have two therapists and a lawyer,” Leigh Stein joked, beginning the panel.

“How did you decide to write the book?” she asked both Eileen Cronin and Wendy Ortiz.

“I wrote a piece in the Washington Post,” Cronin said. “My mother took Thalidomide without testing.
I wrote a letter to the editor” about another piece they’d published on the subject that angered her. “I was enraged. I felt completely diminished. I wrote my whole life in 2,000 words in two weeks.”

She continued, “My memoir is a complex family story. I’m one of 11. My mother is bipolar. I consider myself a feminist woman, and I had to write a hideous book about the women in my family. My brothers were the ones who were supportive.”

“I always knew it was going to be a book,” Ortiz said about Excavation. “I had written the story as fiction many times before. I wrote an essay to test the temperature out there.”


Eileen Cronin sharing her story, while Wendy Ortiz and Leigh Stein look on.
Ortiz’s memoir is about an ongoing relationship she had with a teacher while she was in high school.

“A common question I get is, ‘What did your mom say?’ There’s an assumption about my relationship with my mother—that she’d read the book. My mother hasn’t read my book.”

Ortiz said her parents didn’t take her writing seriously when she was young.

“Writing was a hobby,” she said. “I never had my mother in mind when I wrote this book,” and, “my father passed away before the book came out.”

Cronin shared, “My siblings haven’t read [Mermaid], but their friends are writing the Amazon reviews.”

The audience groaned.

“My brother is extremely supportive,” Cronin continued. “You grow up in an ultra-conservative place. You are different. It’s not a good place to be. Family may be the first to turn on you. You have to find the people who will get you out of it.”

The conversation veered toward writing personal information about other people who are close to you.

Anyone can sue you for anything any time,” Quinn Heraty said. “I think you should write everything. That doesn’t mean you have to publish it.”

She explained, “There are two areas of concern: 1) disclosure, and 2) defamation,” which are “false statements that caused injury.”

I was more concerned with disclosure because defamation is a no-brainer: don’t lie.

“I wrote a draft with his real name,” Ortiz said about her teacher, “because he wasn’t innocent. But right before publication, [I thought], ‘Wow, I’m in a small press without a lawyer. I’m going to change his name.'"

She added after a beat, "But not by very much.”

The audience laughed.

At the last minute before publication, Ortiz thought, “What are my intentions here?” but, she said, “I will never know if that was the right choice.”

“If it’s factually true,” Heraty said, “you don’t have to worry about liability for defamation. The more interesting, grayish area is disclosure: invasion of privacy.”

The definition of disclosure, she said, is if something is “not noteworthy, not of public interest.”

She added, “If it’s newsworthy, it’s an exception—reporter’s privilege.”

Who determines whether or not something is “noteworthy” or “newsworthy?” Could there be a case for disclosure issues in every memoir?

No one asked this question. Maybe I should have. It worried me. It has always worried me.

“I felt somewhat protected,” Ortiz said, “because [my former teacher] is a registered sex offender because of something else. I felt a weird safety.”

“There was no escaping telling about my mother’s mental illness when telling my story,” Cronin said. “I waited 25 years to write it. I waited a long time for her to die, but she’s going to outlive me.”

About name changes, Cronin shared, “Artistically I wouldn’t have changed names. I did what they decided,” referring to lawyers and editors. “I named one of my sisters Liz. She was furious.”


The memoir panelists model bravery in sharing their personal stories.
You never know what’s going to set someone off.

“The dead don’t sue,” Heraty said. “Dead people have no rights or privacy. It’s open season. At some point, all of our lives are history.

She suggested composite characters, location changes, and pseudonyms. She gave the Monster story as an example.

“There was a documentary that came before Monster. All material that became public came from the documentary. Eileen [Wuornos'] lover wouldn’t sign a release, so they had to fictionalize some things. Christina Ricci looks nothing like her.”

Ortiz discussed the process of getting her memoir out into the world.

“Originally I had a great agent who was having a hard time selling the book.”

The feedback she received was, “It’s beautiful, but it’s so dark.”

What’s wrong with a memoir being dark? I’ve read Excavation. It’s astounding. It never crossed my mind that it was “too dark.” It’s real. It’s subtle and stark. The relationship between student and teacher is complicated and multi-layered. It’s the way it really happened. Isn’t that what a memoir is supposed to be?

Basically “dark” is “hard to market,” she said. “I received positive rejections.”

“The glowing rejections make you want to jump out of the window,” Stein said.

Ortiz wrote a Nervous Breakdown essay that caught the eye of a small publisher.

“I want to publish this next July,” the publisher said.

Smart move.

“I have a new agent who’s trying to sell Excavation to a bigger publisher. I sent my list of rejections to the new agent.”

She said what’s “really activating” is not the story about the teacher/student relationship, but rather “adolescent sexuality. It resonates with readers. That’s what shook people.”

 “Writers can’t not write,” Cronin said. “I started writing pieces in small literary reviews.”

She decided not to wait anymore to share her story.

“Mom, I’m sorry,” she said.

“I sent an email at 4:00 PM on New Year’s Eve to Alice Walker’s agent,” because she felt “this woman understands women who’ve not had an easy path.”

She received a response in two minutes.

“She read [the book] over the weekend and signed me on Monday. In our family, women had babies. The book is about the quest for motherhood.”

Apparently, Cronin “published too many excerpts in small magazines,” according to O, The Oprah Magazine.

O Magazine said, ‘She’s published too many,’” and turned her down for that reason.

Who would have ever thought publishing too much would be a problem?

“You just have to keep moving on. Keep finding new venues,” Cronin said. “Trust that the universe knows where it’s going.”

Stein added, “Keep publishing. You might get an agent. If I had to do it again, I would write the whole book first. I sold it on a partial/proposal.”

She suggested, “Humanize the bad guy. Readers are smart.”

“Just because a bunch of agents are vulturing around you, don’t just pick one,” Ortiz advised. “You need a compatible agent. I needed a two-and-a-half year courtship before commitment to my current agent. Do your homework.”

“You will not have control over your book if you don’t write the book. Write your book. At least write several drafts,” Cronin said. “You’ll still write it after it’s sold.”

She said she had to leave out the physical abuse she endured. “My family took a lot of hits on it.”

Heraty urged, “Just write it. Defamation is state by state. Truth is generally an affirmative defense.”

“The original drafts didn’t have any contemporary chapters about where I am now,” Ortiz said. “The ending just sort of appeared to me. I wanted to leave space for what was going to happen next.”

She said about the bravery of writers she admires: “Other writers give me permission.

“It’s a real message of strength,” Cronin said about Ortiz’s memoir.

Cronin ended on an up note.

“My whole life was about finding my identity. I had to end the book with finding my husband and having a child. It ends with my daughter as a ballerina on stage,” something she longed to do herself despite being physically unable to do so.

That got a happy “ahhhh” from the crowd. Her “full circle” moment was touching.

Personally, I'm still terrified about the disclosure issue in my essay collection. One step at a time. While Ortiz says writers she admires give her permission, I feel that way about her.

Thank you to all the brave writers who've paved the way for the rest of us who are still emerging.

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