Don’t Manufacture Trauma in Memoir

I want to talk about Abby Wambach’s memoir and why I didn’t really like it, but I’m quite sure what’s wrong with Wambach’s memoir isn’t her fault. It’s probably her agent’s, publisher’s, and editor’s faults. It all has to do with the fact that America has an obsession with trauma in memoir.

In fact, I’m sure she has a memoir ghostwriter, too; in which case, it’s also the ghostwriter’s fault, sort of. I assure you, though, the ghostwriter was probably strong-armed by the publisher into writing the book this way. Been there.

Abby Wambach, badass

Wambach is an incredible athlete whose story is compelling in and of itself. Most of the story is about one incredible success after another.

She had a natural athletic ability, a lot of family support, and a middle class (at least) background. She also had a few setbacks along the way that really weren’t that bad. Basically, she’s a badass, and I’m happy for her.

Writers: stop obsessing on trauma in memoir

Trouble is, Forward is heavily sprinkled with mentions of bogus manufactured trauma. My favorite is something about how a certain disappointment was made worse by the memory of how her father once forgot her birthday. This factoid was thrown out there in a one-sentence mention, as if it was necessary to, once in a while, insert some trauma into the memoir, just for the heck of it.

Wambach doesn’t speak in detail on the birthday-forgetting, the way you would if it were a seriously traumatic thing that affected your life. She just mentions it, as if a memoir without “trauma” is like a flower without color. Ya gotta git some in thar.

Seriously? Your dad forgot your birthday? My dad used to forget his kids names and once even called me by the dog’s name. So what? Her dad was probably so busy working his ass off to pay all Abby’s athletic expenses that the moment slipped by. Come on, this doesn’t qualify as trauma. And that’s okay. A memoir can be perfectly interesting even if you didn’t have a horrible, trauma-filled life.

Another trope Wambach uses is frequently revisiting the idea that, as a teen, she worried people only loved her for her soccer-playing abilities. This also failed to tug at my heart-strings. It’s just normal teenage stuff. At all, most teens worry about whether or not anyone loves them at all. Her version had an athletic slant, but it just seemed like normal adolescent angst to me. The remarkable thing about Wambach was her superior athletic skill, not how much she supposedly suffered because of it.

Stop Whining

To me, the birthday incident doesn’t even deserve a mention in the memoir. This silly manufactured trauma in memoir guise makes an incredible, tough, indefatigable athlete look like a whiner. And I’m sure she isn’t one.

Now I’m going to tell you the reason that bit about the forgotten birthday, and other sad-but-not-really moments like it, are in the book at all. It’s because a lot of people–many publishers among them–believe trauma in memoir is the only thing that makes a life story sell. The mention of trauma is usually accompanied by psychoanalysis of the effects of that trauma. BULLSHIT.

Memoir is Not Psychoanalysis

I think we may have Oprah to thank for this annoying trend, but I’m not sure. Writers, listen: memoir is not psychoanalysis, and it’s not necessarily about trauma. You can write a perfectly good memoir about a successful life without making it about trauma. In fact, you can write a perfectly good memoir about a traumatic life without making it about trauma. (Here’s a blog about coming up with a relevant theme for your memoir)

Writing a great story is about showing subjects growing over time, facing conflicts, learning from them, and becoming who they are because of them. Memoir can be funny, enjoyable, heroic, philosophical, and many other other things. And yes, it can be a psychological examination of a life filled with trauma, but it doesn’t have to be. If trauma doesn’t factor into the subject’s life, just leave it alone. There are so many other things to talk about. (Here’s a blog about why readers are interested in your honest life story)

Memoir Ghostwriters Have to Find What’s Really There

Full disclosure, I didn’t finish Forward because while waiting for insight, reflection, philosophy or something to engage me, I got so angry about the dumb, nonexistent birthday party that I deleted the book off my kindle. Frankly, Abby Wambach is awesome, but her memoir is boring.

Wambach’s writer tried to use manufactured trauma to give the book a central conflict. It didn’t work, because either Abby’s life simply hasn’t been traumatic enough or the depth of that trauma isn’t brought across very well. Moments like the forgotten birthday are sprinkled throughout the book in little one- or two-sentence throw-away lines. It’s just enough to annoy the reader, but not enough to bite down on.

Don’t Rely on Trauma in Memoir

The job of a memoir ghostwriter is not to manufacture trauma to give the story “depth” but to listen carefully and ask in-depth questions in order to find the real central conflict of that life story. You don’t have to manufacture one. Every life has conflicts and real plots and real subplots galore. Memoir ghostwriters have to do the interviews and listen in-depth in order to get to know the subject better than she knows herself.

Don’t. Manufacture. Trauma.

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