settleWhen people ask me what I do and I tell them I ghostwrite memoirs, they often ask if I write celebrity memoirs. I tell them yes, just to keep things simple, but in truth what I do is very different from your typical celebrity memoir. Most of those are books that would not be at all interesting if the subject wasn't already famous. Case in point, the latest one I read: Megyn Kelly's "Settle for More." It was pretty interesting up until chapter 14, where all her problems in life were solved by a few months of therapy and a dream husband. I stopped reading Tina Fey's memoir right about that point actually, too. When your greatest problem in life is whether or not to have two children or just the one, I remember I'm only reading this because you're a celebrity. That's just not a riveting plot dynamic. But Megyn's book reminded me of some issues I face in my ghostwriting work, too--it's important to point out the traumas and dramas that made you who you are, but not to overemphasize them so that it seems like nothing else ever happened to you. This is one of the reasons I use a secondary editor, because it's really easy to fall into talking about how some childhood ezperience shaped every decision you made afterward. The truth is, people do crazy/stupid/cruel/mindless things for a wide variety of mostly-unknowable reasons, and it's not necessary to analyze and pinpoint what a psychologist would say about why you did it. As long as you remember the reason you gave yourself at the time, that's all readers need to know, because those readers are the amateur psychologists and sleuths that are solving the mystery of why you did what you did. If you analyze yourself, it leaves nothing for the reader to do!

In Megyn's case, she was bullied in seventh grade, but by eighth grade everything was better and by high school she was the popular captain of the cheerleading squad. It's true that childhood hurt never goes away, but in the case of Megyn, she brought up her memory of the bullying so many times afterward, when she faced adversity, that it really felt like she was trying to prove she had suffered--she wasn't just a little miss perfect. In this case, the effort to prove she had suffered kind of discredited the suffering itself. What I found more interesting than the bullying episode was the time she spent as a successful attorney, because the hours were so intense and the pressure so massive, and yet her success so great, that she actually grew to hate her life--all because she was so good at it. Now that paradox, to me, is interesting, especially the fact that other successful lawyers suffer in exactly the same way and have done so for decades, and yet nobody seems to have thought to stop this crazy cycle of lawyer abuse, including the high-powered lawyers themselves. They've got the money and the power to establish whatever work culture they want, but they don't think to change things, even to make their own lives better, save their marriages, prevent suicide, increase happiness. To me, this speaks to something in human nature. Perhaps the pride of being good at your job feels like something essential to survival. People will do anything to keep the status of being on top--and yet, that lifestyle is exactly what makes lawyers die of heart attacks. Now that, to me is interesting. I could ponder it all day. 

If I had written Megyn's book, Settle for Less, I would have focussed less on her perfect marriage (a lot less), less on the don't-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful theme that seems determined to prove she's riddled with angst while climbing the ladder of success (meh), and more on her observations of the subcultures she has been introduced to. She hit on something interesting in the chapters about being an attorney, but after that, things went downhill. Also--and keep in mind I'm writing to keep readers reading, not to give out "helpful tips"--I'd try to find some failures to talk about. She writes about learning to be vulnerable and not so guarded, not so perfect, yet this book isn't much of an example of that.

Megyn's failures here are mild and always superceded with fantastic learning experiences. Reading about someone else's amazing success actually gets dull. Sure, readers pick up a few tips here and there, but mostly it makes them feel like their own lives aren't good enough. When I read a memoir, I want to see the subject be willing to play the fool--I can't believe I screwed that up! I did the whole thing ass-backwards! Why do i make the same mistake over and over? This is why I challenge my clients when they tell me the big success stories of their lives. I ask what risks they took, how other people reacted, and which parts of it they screwed it up, not just how they succeeded. Usually, they're suprised. That's not the way they're used to telling the story, but it's quite dull when you're the hero of every story. Be the lousy bum who stumbles through everything, and I might just get past chapter fifteen.