Too much “backstory” in Memoir?

While illustrating features of memoir writing, JerryWaxler, esteemed writing coach, therapist, author, and speaker graciously wrote a six week commentary using various aspects of my newly published book, Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe. Part four was entitled, “Will the examined life become a memoir subgenre?”

Waxler says writing too much “backstory” or the “panorama of a life violates a central mandate of the memoir genre, “assuring rejection by traditional publicists.” I’m grateful for my ignorance regarding the “rules” for memoir genres which, generally speaking, focuses on a short or specific period during the writer’s life versus an autobiography which focuses on a much longer span of the author’s life.

In this article, Waxler points out the positive aspects of writing about the whole of one’s life.   “I recently found a memoir Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe by Dawn Novotny that demonstrates this longer search for meaning. By including her whole life, Novotny showed me how all the parts fit together. If she had limited her story just to the neglect and abuse during childhood, I would never have learned how that childhood led to her failed marriages. If she only wrote about her troubled young adulthood, I would never have understood the period of growth and wisdom that came later. Over this longer time frame, she portrayed a compelling dramatic arc.”

The first half of my life was infused with all types of emotional confusion common to children that have grown up in homes where alcohol, mental illness, physical and sexual abuse abound. The second half was inundated with self-abuse and bad choices as I tried to escape the earlier experiences, coupled with low self-esteem and self-loathing. Had I only included a specific time period of my life, I would have left the reader knowing a profoundly wounded individual who was without the wisdom acquired in the later years. The “psychological complexity” of the backstory was crucial to the conclusion of my story.

Waxler says, “By including all the stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption. These long-term developments are among the most satisfying rewards of lifestory reading and writing, and I’m glad Ragdoll Redeemed extended beyond the “standard” definition of memoir.”

Waxler affirms some of my most rewarding memoir experiences when he says, “By including all stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption.”

By linking the spans of my life I was able to witness my personal evolution; the turning points, the healthy choices, compassion for others, then myself, the grace of forgiveness, and finally self-esteem through self-redemption.



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