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The Value of Ordinary Stories

I’ve been sending out queries for Stepping Stones, my memoir/essay book where I tell the stories having to do with my transformation into a working mother, the onset of anxiety as an issue in my life, and parenting four children while managing these other things. In response to those queries I’ve been getting a lot of rejections. Most of them are form rejections, often they are addressed to “author.” I can mostly shrug at those, but other rejections are personal. The agent or editor took time to speak particularly to me about the work I submitted. Such responses are a gift of time and caring. I know this. I try to treat the gift with respect even when the accumulation begins to feel discouraging. The personal responses all say things like:

I am just not seeing how I can break this out to a trade readership.

while I think that you have a compelling voice, I don’t completely trust that this is something that I could sell into the mainstream trade market—memoirs are very tough to sell if they’re not overly sexy or high-concept.

You are a compelling writer, with a clear perspective, and a wonderful sense of humor about your circumstances. As a working mother of four (though my kids are now all grown up!), I certainly empathized with the struggle you portrayed in these pages. However, while your story resonated personally, I’m not convinced that the central conflict is compelling enough to distinguish itself in the saturated memoir genre. While the struggle to be a good mother and wife and still pay the bills on time is a difficult one, it is certainly not a unique circumstance. I’ve found that memoir readers generally gravitate towards stories of incredible trauma or tragedy, or of overcoming enormous hurdles: largely circumstances that are outside of their own frame of reference.

And most recently:

What makes your story of motherhood and anxiety and so on different from other’s story?

My answer: nothing.
The stories told in my essays are stories of an ordinary life. Yet “ordinary” is not the same as “mediocre.” There is excellence to be found in ordinary things. This excellence is worth pursuing, but people will not see it nor attempt it if they are constantly told that only spectacular efforts and events are newsworthy. The world is full of amazing people who will never be newsworthy, but without whom our society would collapse.

American society seeks spectacle. The explosions in this year’s movie must be more fantastic than the ones last year. If it bleeds it leads is a guiding principle of most news sources. We watch the Olympics to see the far reaches of human capability and be inspired by them. We read stories of severe mental illness, or horrific abuse, or tantalizing bedroom play. The subtext in all of this is that if we want to matter, we must transform ourselves into something different from the rest of society. We must do something extraordinary to leave a permanent mark on the world. When we don’t, we feel boring.

I had a neighbor once, the mother of my friend, who gave the best hugs in the whole world. She was big, warm, and soft. A hug from her was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. She listened to me. She recommended books. She functioned as an auxiliary mother. Her name was Marilyn and she is the reason that I associate the name with motherliness instead of the blonde actress. I remember Marilyn warning me once—speaking from her position in a deeply unhappy marriage, a position I only learned about years later–not to get married too early. I assured her I would wait until at least eighteen. She laughed and I realized that eighteen still sounded young to her. After Marilyn moved away with her family, I felt her absence. I’ve kept many of the books she gave me. Sometimes I hold them in my hand, running my fingers lightly over the inscriptions, and I wonder how many thoughts and opinions I have because of conversations with her. How was my life shaped by her influence? It is impossible for me to know. I can’t trace back and separate out years of conversations and interactions which altered the trajectory of my young life. Was she ordinary? Yes. Put in a crowd of people she would not stand out, yet she was excellent. She wrapped her life around helping two severely allergic children survive into adulthood. She helped teach me to read. In hundreds of quiet ways she went above and beyond what was expected of a neighbor and friend. She was not newsworthy, but her story matters. She matters.

Why do we wait for eulogies and funerals to fully appreciate the excellence in ordinary lives? We are surrounded by people who have lived tragedies and triumphs. Whatever personal trial you are currently experiencing someone has already walked that path and can help you see the way through, but you’ll only be able to find that person if she has shared her story somewhere. Sometimes these connections are made through mutual friends. Lately they are often made via the internet and support groups. These ordinary stories of excellence and survival are one of the reasons I love to read blogs. It is a major reason why I write my blog, because if one of my ordinary stories can be inspiration or hope to another person then the world is made into a better place. My struggles start being useful instead of just me thrashing around in the dark trying to get by.

These rejection letters are trying to tell me that I have to write a sensational story to be published. This saddens me. It sometimes sends me a few steps down the path of despair, because I don’t think I can write a sensational story. That is not the sort of writing I do. I want to write the story of Marilyn. I want to write about a summer afternoon. I want to share the beauty I see in my four kids playing a video game together. I don’t write self-help or how-to either, which is another suggestion I’ve received. No piece of advice is right for every person, no way of approaching a problem will work for everyone. I don’t feel comfortable saying “this is what you should learn and do” because often the most touching responses I receive are unexpected. The reader pulled something from my words which I’d never seen in them. My stories enter the mind of the reader and combine with everything that is already in there to spark something new. It is a form of magic and it works even when the stories are ordinary.

I’d really hoped that some publisher somewhere would see the value in ordinary stories excellently told. I’m sad because I know these publishing professionals are right, extraordinary stories sell, ordinary stories don’t. Even if some publisher does step up what I’ve written is a niche book that will only be loved by people who find beauty in the ordinary. They are a small market segment. I’ll just keep telling the stories here and turn to fiction as a path to national publication. I’m not giving up on Stepping Stones. It may someday find a home, but it has to be the right home and that may be a very long time in coming.

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8 comments to The Value of Ordinary Stories

  • Ketira

    Perhaps contact NBC News? Every night they do a piece on someone who is ordinary but does extraordinary things, and they call this “Making a Difference”. Perhaps you & Howard can both be featured as a hard-working couple (with four kids to manage) trying a unique way to make ends meet.

    It’s just an idea; I don’t know if Howard would go for it or if NBC Nightly News would go for it. Can’t hurt to ask….

    • It feels self-agrandizing to say “Hey, we’re newsworthy!” Also television exposure doesn’t do much to help with a publishing career. I was interviewed on a local station about Hold on to Your Horses and sold zero books because of it.

      But thank you for believing we’re worth the press. That means a lot.

  • kerri farrer

    Don’t give up on it. The beautiful ordinary stories are important and they resonate. It just might not be the traditional path to publishing. There’s a difference between the memoirs that end up in the discount 5 buck bin a month after release and beautiful stories that stick around on independent book stores shelves because they keep getting bought again and again.

  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s work looks at normal, everyday, average women. Most of us don’t take the time to remember our daily lives, but there is great power in them and in the recording of them. Yes, most of us today are terribly uninterested in the daily lives of other working moms but yours are the kinds of records that will tell the future about who we are, why we are who we are, and how those who follow came to be the way they are. It’s powerful, even if today it’s underappreciated.

    If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend “The Midwife’s Tale.” It’s fascinating to see what daily life was like in the days following the revolutionary war from the viewpoint of a woman.

  • Have you thought about sending out individual stories as Creative Nonfiction to literary magazines? Jenna Blum, author of “Those Who Save Us,” stories about ordinary people in Nazi Germany, got her start. The Briar Cliff Review published a few of her stories which she later incorporated as part of her larger novel.

    I feel hipster being a part of the niche that loves the ordinary. That’s one of the reasons I love the “Young @ Heart” documentary so much: it’s ordinary senior citizens doing something relatively normal, singing. Sure, they sing songs from unexpected genres, but they’re songs we’ve heard before. It’s in the culmination of all the ordinary ingredients that makes it bloom for me.