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Tell Your Family Story in a Private Book?

Frequently I have people sign up for my writing classes – both the classes on general fiction construction and historical fiction – because they want to tell the story of their grandmother's trek across the American prairie by covered wagon; or their grandfather’s disappearance in World War II Germany; or even their own story from the Summer of Love. In all of those instances, I am struck by the notion that these writers are hemmed in by facts as well as by their desire to paint their ancestors in a favorable light. This doesn’t necessarily make great fiction, especially when fiction requires that you sometimes bend the facts to serve a larger truth.

So I was particularly interested when William Novak, co-author of memoirs of Lee Iacocca, Magic Johnson, Nancy Reagan and others, wrote a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Writing Books Very Few Will Read” in which he described the not-often-discussed existence of a market for private/family-read-only memoirs. That is, he was recently contracted to write a memoir of a family patriarch under the stipulation that the memoir never be publicly published. In fact, the private memoir was a family tradition – the father of the patriarch had had one written, as had his father before him.

Even more interesting, though, were the differences between writing a private book for a family and a public book. First and foremost was his realization that commercial publishers “encourage the writer to pay special attention to the sordid elements of a life, because, let’s face it, scandal, crime, addiction and other human failings are more compelling to most readers.” In the private book, Novak says, the writer is free to “explore the qualities and actions that will inspire future generations.” This would definitely solve my students’ quandary of how to write a family story that is accurate and yet kind.

Novak also says that “another happy surprise was that private books don’t demand complete structural consistency.” He describes the process of being free to make the form fit the content rather than the other way around, and include a few pages of oral history, an annotated list, an edited conversation or other liberties that one cannot take in a commercial book.

I think my students will be quite relieved to hear all of this.


#JessWells, #WilliamNovak, #TheNewYorkTimes