June 23, 2020

How to write a great memoir in 10 years or less

Behind the Book by
Adjmi tells the story of how eight years, four editors, a case of shingles and a self-guided crash-course in editing led, at last, to one of the best memoirs of the year.
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Lot Six, David Adjmi’s memoir of the journey from his conservative Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn to becoming a celebrated New York playwright, is vibrant, edgy, scenic, exciting, sensitive, faithful and funny. Here Adjmi tells the story of how eight years, four editors, a case of shingles and a self-guided crash-course in editing led, at last, to one of the best memoirs of the year.

“We need stories to live,” wrote Joan Didion, though I never quite believed her. I mean, yes, I understood what she was saying, that stories were the foundation of human societies, but I never really understood it as an immediate, visceral truth. I was a playwright—all I ever did was write stories—but I didn’t think I needed them to live, or that anyone needed them to live. If I didn’t hear or tell a story, if I abstained from narrative art altogether, I didn’t shrivel up and collapse; I was still living and breathing, and it was fine.

In 2009, I was asked by an editor at HarperCollins to write my own story. I still don’t understand how it happened. I had my New York debut that spring with a play called Stunning at Lincoln Center Theater, and the New York Times profiled me in conjunction with the opening. A week or so later, I got an email from an editor at HarperCollins named Claire. She’d read the profile, saw my play and somehow got the idea that I should write a memoir.

At first, I thought this was a completely stupid idea. Nothing significant had happened to me. My life was boring and unworthy of memorialization. My play was about the small and marginal Sephardic Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn (where I’m from), and I’d raked it over the coals; I didn’t have anything more to say about it. But Claire said I didn’t have to write about that community. She said I could write whatever I wanted and that she would help me—that she’d be with me every step of the way.

Together, we came up with a conceit: I would write 10 essays on works of art that inspired me and use these to elaborate on my own personal history. It was all a little heady and vague, but I started to get excited to write this book.

I dragged up my old notebooks from college classes on Kafka and Russian literature. I watched and rewatched my Criterion Collection movies on DVD and feverishly took notes. I wrote down every single thing I experienced that I thought might constitute a memory. Three years later, I printed out 2,000 pages, jammed them into a suitcase and took off for a writing residency, where I read through what I had and cut frantically in my attempts to distill this graphomaniac glop into a book.

“I didn’t have homeless parents. I didn’t chew off my own leg and eat it because I was trapped in some remote glacial cave in the Arctic. What made my story worth telling?”

In the fall of 2013, I got a very wobbly and messy first draft to Claire. I was exhausted, and I was desperate for her to give me notes, to tell me how to shape my book and do all the things I thought editors did. Months passed with no word, and I started to get a little antsy. I asked my agent to check in with HarperCollins, and she called me right back. “You’ve been orphaned,” she said.

This sounded horrifying. “What you do mean, orphaned?”

She told me Claire had left HarperCollins and was no longer my editor. Sometimes these “orphaned” books were just shelved, but in my case Claire’s assistant, Hannah, had been promoted to editor and wanted to take over the project herself.

A few days later, I got a really nice email from Hannah. She wrote lovely things about the manuscript, but she thought that the critical essays didn’t really weave together with the memoir stuff, and ultimately she didn’t know what it was about. This was unsurprising to me; I didn’t know what it was about either! The 10 essays were meant to connect and form some composite impression of me, my life, but they didn’t.

When I sat down to begin a new draft, I felt depressed and exhausted. I felt trapped with this book contract. Claire said she’d be with me every step of the way, and now I was stuck with a job I couldn’t do. I was a playwright, not a memoirist. It was a different set of skills altogether, and I was uncomfortable writing about myself; I didn’t really feel I had a self, at least not one that could serve as the center of a book. I had suffered but couldn’t write convincingly about my suffering because I couldn’t bundle the details of it into a societally germane and marketable package. I didn’t have homeless parents. I didn’t chew off my own leg and eat it because I was trapped in some remote glacial cave in the Arctic. I wasn’t a drug addict. I wasn’t addled with disease. What made my story worth telling? There was no story.

Two years later, God knows how, I eked out a new draft. I didn’t have a model for how to rewrite; I was working off intuitions. I sent the manuscript off to Hannah and hoped for the best.

She called me a few weeks later. “I have some bad news,” she said. “I’m leaving HarperCollins and moving to San Francisco. I’m sorry!” I was orphaned again. But, Hannah added, Jonathan Burnham had read the new draft and liked it enough to edit it himself.

Jonathan was the executive editor of HarperCollins. I was sad to lose Hannah, but I thought this was a pretty nice consolation prize. And the fact that he liked my manuscript made me believe I’d actually done a good job with the draft and was probably close to the finish line.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of Lot Six.

In the spring, he and I had lunch together at a swank bistro in the financial district of Manhattan, right near the new HarperCollins offices, to talk about next steps. Jonathan seemed to like my book and didn’t need it to be a story about a man who took drugs or was aphasic or chewed off his own leg; he accepted the low-concept aspect. “The writing is amazing and obsessive,” he said, twirling his Florentine pasta around an expensive looking silver fork, “but at the same time, I don’t know why I am reading. I don’t know why I should turn the page.”

“OK,” I said, nodding and trying to sound professional even though I was dying inside.

“I am happy to turn the page,” he continued, “but I don’t need to turn the page.”

The truth was I had no idea how to make Jonathan need to turn the page. I hadn’t the remotest idea how to write or shape a book, and I was an orphan. Jonathan had graciously stepped in to help edit the book, but he was very busy—he basically ran HarperCollins—and he wasn’t going to write the book for me (which is what I secretly hoped someone, anyone would do). No one was going to guide me with the infantilizing specificity I’d hoped for back when I signed the contract.

Jonathan said it needed “another churn,” and he agreed to give me a year. By this point, I was seven years into the process.

I knew if I was ever going to finish this damned book, I’d have to become an editor myself. So that’s what I did. I went online and Googled books on developmental editing. I picked a few and, over the course of a couple of weeks, devoured them. I also read Mary Karr’s excellent The Art of the Memoir, Philip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, all of which gave me skills to edit and deepen my work.

As a playwright, I’d been trained to boil everything down to action. Plays don’t tell you what the characters are feeling; great actors make the interior lives of the characters visible. But books need to make feelings visceral and explicit or the work has no interiority—and I had almost no interiority in my book.

“Though I could empathize with characters in my plays, I couldn’t empathize with myself, and I was ashamed of this.”

I started to think of my book as fiction. And by fiction, I don’t mean false; I mean a technology that distills a series of events into a story. Fiction was a way to get at the truth.

It wasn’t that I was lying in the earlier drafts. But truth in art isn’t just a matter of intention; it’s a matter of craft. I’d used craft to write my plays, but in those earlier drafts of the book, I was unwilling to use my craft to tell a story. Now I began to approach the book the way I approached my plays. I compressed multiple plotlines into a single strong plotline. I reorganized and restructured events to create a dramatic build.

As I reworked it this time around, a strange thing started to happen. The content of the book began to mimic the writing process. My book started to become the story of a man who didn’t believe he had a story but made a life for himself writing stories and who, more or less, found himself in the mirror of art.

At this point, the whole “10 essays about art” conceit fell away. The book had to be about me. I had to turn myself into a character in a story and, most importantly, I had to interrogate this character with the same vividness and specificity I brought to my plays.

This was where the terror really cropped up. Though I could empathize with characters in my plays, I couldn’t empathize with myself, and I was ashamed of this. But if I didn’t expose all this stuff about myself, I knew I would have a lousy book. The threat of being a shitty writer chastened me and forced me to humanize myself. My hubris made me honest—and it hurt.

Throughout the revision, I became incredibly depressed. I was sobbing nearly all the time. My friends were worried about me. My theater agent gently suggested I go on meds. The stress was so great, I ended up with a case of shingles that culminated in an ugly boil on my face. The boil swelled to the size of a golf ball and, days later, crowned mysteriously in a yellowish-black pustule that dried up and dropped right off like a tiny shriveled currant.

“Although I’d wanted some editor to magically shape the material and tell me what my book was about, no one could have done this for me.”

I had a new pebble-sized hole in my face, and I was flat broke because what was meant to be an 18-month writing project stretched out to nearly a decade, but oh well! I kept writing. I wrote and sobbed and somehow got to the end of the draft, which I sent off to Jonathan. He’d soon be promoted to CEO of HarperCollins, and I’d be passed to a new editor—again—but in some respects it didn’t matter. The book was already so much better, I could feel it. Although I’d wanted some editor to magically shape the material and tell me what my book was about, no one could have done this for me. The deep private archeological work of writing a memoir was mine and mine alone.

And it wasn’t just an excavation. The sentences, to paraphrase the writer Garth Greenwell, weren’t just “empty containers for thought”; they also produced the thought. There was a kind of alchemy at work. It was as if my actual life was a tattered copy, and my book was the glorious, pristine original. In writing about my life, I was able to both connect the dots of the past and endow that history with new life. In crafting my life experience into a story, I willed myself into existence. That’s the beauty of art. That is what stories do for people. And that is what writing a memoir did for me.


Author photo © Kitty Suen.

David Adjmi

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Lot Six

Lot Six

By David Adjmi
ISBN 9780061990946

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