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I often advise writers to imagine their book on the shelf – to picture where in the bookstore it will be sitting, which other books it will be keeping company with, and what readers will be saying to their friends about it once they get to “the end.”
 
I suggest this because it’s incredible important to remember that when you are writing a book, you are creating a product – a thing that will be bought and sold in a marketplace. This can be a terrifying thought for a first-time author who may be nervous simply sharing their first chapter with a writing group, or sending in a scene for a coaching critique.  But we need to lean into this fear. The fear of being bought and sold goes hand in hand with the fear of being exposed, and it’s all part of being read, which is what every writer wants.
 
I often use an exercise for envisioning your book on the shelf that I call The Oprah Exercise. It goes like this:

 
Surprise! It's three years from now. Your book has taken the world by storm (thanks to how well you identified your reader and how well all your marketing efforts worked!) You’ve been invited to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk all about it.

Oprah isn’t going to spend the time on air talking about the plot of your book, or what’s in it, or the way you crafted it or what it can do for people, because everyone’s already read it and they know all of this stuff already. She’s going to ask you why you believe your book has resonated as deeply as it has—and you have to answer in a snappy sound bite. So why has your book resonated with so many readers? What, in other words, did it show people about their lives that they needed to see? How did it make things better? Remember to speak in a snappy sound bite so you sound awesome on TV! And tell us what you will wear.
 
Forget that Oprah no longer has a show – the exercise is great because it forces you to hone in on your book’s point and why it matters. Even the bit about what to wear is important because it helps you to see yourself as an author with an identity or a “brand” as the new buzzword goes.
 
The opposite exercise can also really help, as well – which is to imagine the worst possible book review someone could write for your book. This is not exactly fun, but it’s useful to try to capture what you should avoid.
 
You can also play this part of the game by reading critical book reviews and considering what it would be like to receive that notice for your own work. What you are looking for is the review that makes you think, “Now THAT is the LAST thing I would want anyone to say about my book. THAT would be the WORST.”
 
This is what I thought when I read a recent Wall Street Journal review of Maria Sharapova’s new memoir. The critique, to me, was withering because it was about the very thing we come to memoir for: depth and insight into someone else’s heart and mind. We come because someone is generous of spirit, because they allow themselves to be vulnerable, because they dig deeper than we can go in regular everyday life. The same is absilutely true for fiction and non-fiction, but it's more glaringly obvious for memoir.
 
Sharapova is one of the world’s top tennis players and by some accounts, the world’s richest female athletes (due in large part to her luxury endorsement deals.) She has won five Grand Slam titles. She was suspended from the tour for fifteen months, and condemned by sponsor Nike, for taking a banned substance. She is no stranger, in other words, to attention, both positive and negative. Her life story sounds fascinating to be sure, but the Journal review said this:
 
“The book has a few worthy bits on her childhood and career, but mostly it lacks depth and drama – everything sounds so simple and smooth. If this version were a draft, it would be a solid one, fit to be reworked into a fine book after her retirement. At the moment, though, it is too little too soon. It aims to announce her comeback after spending 15 months away from the sport. But one suspects that, in her career as well as in her life, there is more to discover then she’s willing to yet disclose…
 
Andre Agassi has written the best tennis memoir by far, “Open” (2009). His secret? He was honest about his emotions and his actions – whether it was the way he cheated in tennis (he lied about a drug) or the way he handled his own personal struggles. (He also hired a fantastic co-writer, J.R. Moehringer.) Ms. Sharapova, assisted here by the journalist Rich Cohen, can’t be accused of dishonesty, but she stays too far away from emotions, especially those involving her and her family.”
 
I loved Agassi’s memoir and have often used it to teach memoir writers how to write about really difficult situations involving other people in their lives. He writes with raw honesty and also compassionate kindness about his failed relationship with Brooke Shields. He is not afraid to make himself look really bad as he seeks to tell the truth as best as he can. He writes, in other words, in service of the story. It’s a very moving book.
 
I have not read Sharapova's book and doubt that I will, so can’t comment on what she does or doesn’t do in her pages. My point here for writers is to consider what people might say about your book when it is out there in the world.
 
Will they say that you stayed too far away from emotion? That your readers suspect there was more to the story than you were willing to disclose? That events came across as too simple and smooth?
 
If the answer is yes – if you have shied away from being generous of spirit, and generous of heart – perhaps it’s not time for you to call it done yet.

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