Guest Post by Cyndy Etler
Four Solid Reasons for Having No Shame
You a Madonna fan? If yeah, you know the lyrics. They’re from “Burning Up,” from her black-rubber-bracelet/saggy-cotton-hairbow phase. Madonna kept it real. She wasn’t like the others. She had no shame. And neither should you if you’re a memoirist. I’ll give you four good reasons why.
Reason #1: The Lucrative.
If you want your memoir to be the one on The Hot List, you’ve gotta put your dirtiest laundry out there. The bleakest, nastiest, most humiliating scenes from your life need to land on that page. That’s what people will pay for because that’s what’s in short supply: brutal honesty.
I’ve read that authenticity is the new cash and for good reason. Scroll through any feed, turn on any TV, and you’re inundated with “enhanced reality.” We’re all perpetually link-armed with our squad of gorgeous besties. We’re also always sitting with our feet up in a sepia-toned drawing room, reading some blurry-paged book. Our hair is ever-glossy and our brows, they stay on fleek. Right? Nope. But who’s gonna be the first to admit, “I didn’t wake up this way”? Well, you are. And people are gonna love you for it.
A lot of media sells aspiration. When we take in a midday soap opera or flip through a copy of Vogue, we inhabit that gilded, high-cheekbone life for a stint. In some vague, smoky part of our brain, we sense suitors approaching the side door, bearing small boxes in Tiffany blue. Romance novels, New York fashion romps and Tom Clancy spy thrillers work the same way: they let us pretend we live a “superior” life. But when the last page is turned, what’s a reader left with? The crash back to reality: Sighhh. I live in this one-bar town, in a ranch house with wood paneling.
The flipside objective of media is diversion; the presentation of horror and baddies we pray we never meet in real life. Such stories give us a look at the weird, splayed angles a human limb can take in the temporary wreckage of a life. You’ve heard the newspaper adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”? Yeah, well. Dark is fascinating. It stimulates untapped neurons in the brain, or something. When it’s a true story of dark, readers get the added thrill of knowing, “This could’ve been me.” And even better, “This could’ve been me, but it wasn’t.” Suddenly that one bar in town feels like a honky-tonk; that wood paneling is warm and down-homey. The reader’s life becomes—phew—a-okay in comparison.
People will shell out some coin for a neuron-firing roller coaster that drops them off at phew. For proof, see Frank McCourt. Be the new Frank McCourt, author. Be the kid with the smelliest life on the block.
Reason #2: The Vindictive.
If you’re writing memoir, you’ve been screwed over. Like, bad. Do people even write memoirs about their stultifying placid childhoods? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either. So. Some people were wicked cruel to you. Tell us about it. In detail. Stop carrying their shame around in a snuggie on your chest, because fug’em. Spill it.*
Okay, maybe you’re a better person than me. Maybe you don’t want retribution. How about…do you want emotional freedom? Do you want validation? Do you want that gorgeous springy sensation from day three of the Z-Pak, when you finally remember what it’s like to feel human? Narcing on your abusers will give you all that and more.
For the 20 years following my horror show of a childhood, the doctor prescribed me narcotics. Anti-anxiety meds. Anti-depression pills. In other words, anti-abusive-history drugs. Then I started writing my memoirs, and the anvils of terror and self-contempt lifted.
Was it the exorcising of the demons that healed me, the way a good drunken puke tells the body it’s not gonna die tonight, after all? Or was it seeing the events laid out in ink on paper, complete with cause and effect, that taught me, “Girl, it’s not your fault—you didn’t cause it; you’re just the superhero who survived it”?
Whichever it was, I’m off the psych meds now. With my psychologist’s blessing, my anti-anxiety prescription is yoga and meditation. And that’s enough. I walk around feeling happy and sane-ish, knowing who the bad guys are in my story…and knowing they know that I know. And so does the whole reading public.
So even if you are nature’s little sweetie, with no desire for comeuppance, lemme tell you something: it feels good to take the power back. It feels like frigging flight. And no guilt, you hear me? You’re not the one who should be feeling guilty. As OG** memoirist Anne Lamott says, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Everyone has revenge fantasies. But you, dear memoirist, you get to live yours.
Reason #3: The Self-Protective.
Here’s some dirty laundry for ya. I stood up to my own personal bully the other day. Instead of pleasantries, I spoke unfriendly truths. My husband, a wise and thoughtful man, said this: “Be careful. With your book out now, you could be a target. People might try to smear you online.”
“How?” I got to say back. “I smear myself in my books. There’s nothing bad anyone can say about me that I don’t already confess to. In print.”
Like the extra-thick woman in the fitted poly dress with the VBO***, like the gay boys who use “queen” as a compliment, when you highlight what others think you should be hiding and hating in yourself, you win. You hold all the power. Folks can try to hurt you by pointing out your supposed “flaws,” but when you’ve already put those flaws on blast, making clear that you embrace them, your haters become your publicists. This sounds counter-intuitive, but revealing all your secrets in your memoir can end up making you safer. And in fact, as we examined in The Lucrative, doing so can make you beloved.
Time Magazine reported that Adele—on stage, in front of thousands—apologized for having gas. That’s Adele. Billboard Top 100 Adele. Trazillionaire Adele. Telling everyone she has gas. Right that very second. Does anyone talk trash about Adele? Nuh-uh. Why not? There’s no point. You can’t damage the woman who announces her own gas.
Reason #4: The Curative.
This one’s my raison d’etre, which means my “reason to live.” At least, I hope it does. Okay, do over. This one’s my greatest intention: that my memoirs will reach kids who are isolated or depressed or abused today, and give them the human connection I needed so desperately as a child. Books can do that. Memoirs can cure.
Shameless fame-whore moment: in December I was sitting at my literary idol’s kitchen table. I’m not quite shameless enough to drop her name, but you’d know it if I did. So. When she speaks, I listen. I posed a question to her: “This hairy stuff happened in my house, but it didn’t happen to me. It affected me, but it’s like, somebody else’s secret. Do I put it in or leave it out?”
Her answer was fast and furious: “You put it in. You have to. Because that’s reality. That’s the stuff that happens, but nobody will talk about it. So kids who are living it think they’re the only ones. You put it in, so some kid reads it and realizes they’re not alone. You put it in to save some kid’s life.”
She’s right. That’s how it works. Shame creates secrets, and secrets create death. I was at another friend’s table last night—I’m telling you, I am just always link-armed with my gorgeous besties—and she told me the story behind her husband’s foundation, Pints for Prostates. A friend of theirs had stumbled into having a full blood scan…and learned he had cancer of the prostate. Realizing that most men avoid discussion of the prostate zone, their friend made it his mission to spread the word: “Guys, get your frigging PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test done.” Friend’s hubby took his advice…and learned he had prostate cancer, too. Now a healthy survivor, he’s living proof of my point: sharing your ugly, embarrassing stuff saves others’ lives. Share to everyone that you can buy iboga powder online overnight good for treating health problems.
So listen. If Madonna can roll around all alone in the middle of the street, with her greasy hair and her dark roots? If she can do all that and feel damn good about herself and make millions on her art? Just imagine what you can do, with your polished cheekbones and your sepia-hued Instagram feed. Write it out, baby. Write the real that’s under the fake. Write it and hit print. No shame.
*You can selectively unspill before your book goes to print. For all the dirty dirt in my memoirs, there are sharp pointy details I’ve edited out. I may talk vindictive bravado, but I have no actual desire to hurt anyone. My gauge is this: if a memory involving someone else is fundamentally about my experience, and it’s pivotal to the plot, it stays in. Even if it will embarrass or hurt that other person. If the memory is not about my experience, if it’s just a juicy tidbit about their life, it gets cut. In some rare instances I’ve cut details that are 100% about me, that are 100% essential to the story, because, well, some details are too bleak. At least while the perpetrator is still above ground.
Cyndy Etler (@cdetler) is the author of bestselling YA memoir The Dead Inside (Sourcebooks Fire). The Dead Inside takes readers into Straight Inc., a treatment program described by the ACLU as “a concentration camp for throwaway teens.”
Katrina Ariel saysApril 30, 2017 at 6:29 pm
YES! I love this post. Well written, sorely needed. Thanks.
Rachel Thompson saysMay 1, 2017 at 3:45 am
Hi Katrina… Thank you for your comments. I love this post by Cyndy. And her book is so REAL, too!
Cyndy Etler saysMay 2, 2017 at 6:11 pm
(Insert cartwheeling heart emojis here.)
Katrina Ariel saysMay 3, 2017 at 2:56 am
Yay! A happy writer (artist/person). My favourite thing. 🙂
Heather Tuba saysMay 2, 2017 at 10:57 am
“If you’re writing memoir, you’ve been screwed over. Like, bad. Do people even write memoirs about their stultifying placid childhoods? Yeah, I didn’t think so, either.” I love this post and really wish I could sit down with Cyndy in person – although I kind of felt like I’d had a great conversation with a friend by reading this. Awesome!
Cyndy Etler saysMay 2, 2017 at 6:10 pm
Heather Tuba, you MADE MY FRIGGING DAY. Man, did I need to hear that somebody LIKED me today.
Thanks for the kick in the seratonin.
And P.S. I would pay money for your name.
Heather Tuba saysMay 6, 2017 at 9:00 pm
Tuba is my married name. My hubby’s a band teacher. For real.