When Are You Ready to Publish?

Untied, coverI recently finished reading Meredith Baxter’s memoir, Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering. My initial reaction to the book was quite favorable, but upon reflection I realize that was primarily based on the fact that I personally related, though in a different context, to many of the things she was saying about her early life.

I was also pleased to discover that this book is not what I consider a typical celebrity memoir that sounds like it was cranked out by a publicist, full of name-dropping and plastic humility. Behind the glamor of stage life, Meredith’s life was rather ordinary.

The material is blazingly honest. She pulls no punches as she describes experiences with her stepdad, her drug abuse as an early adult, and the physical and emotional abuse heaped upon her and the children by her second husband, actor David Birnie. She berates herself as she reflects on the erratic thinking that led to her third marriage to a prescription drug addict she met at AA.

Finally she gets to the sensational part about the belated discovery of lesbian preferences and how she finally began to break through her own delusions to live a life of freedom, honesty, truth and love.

Basically, the book is about relationships and dysfunctional thinking. There is a lot to think about, and from that point of view, it’s a thought-provoking read for nearly anyone. From another point of view, I wonder if she may have rushed it to publication a bit quickly, or perhaps relied overly much on her editor/ghost-writer for advice. Three factors prompt these questions:

She begins the book by explaining that she has learned some valuable lessons and wants to write about them. She barely touches on those lessons. The primary focus of the book is her general cluelessness. In the final part she writes of glowing happiness with her partner Nancy, but there is almost nothing about her transformational process.

The second factor relates to the first. In the most satisfying memoirs, such as Glass Castle by Jeannett Walls, or Angela’s Ashes  by Frank McCourt, the dark times of abuse are told and concluded in way that demonstrates deep understanding and compassion for those who “caused the problems.” That sense of compassion seems to be lacking in Untied, which may be a sign that she has not fully resolved the underlying anger and hurt.

The lack of compassion may be the source of the hornet’s nest she stirred up. A bit of web research about the book disclosed that even before David Birnie pointed out in an interview that she didn’t appear to remember one single happy moment in all their years together, she told another reporter that she realized her words would cause David and his family great pain. She sounded a bit chagrinned, even apologetic, as if perhaps she hadn’t thought that through.

Many authors I know such as Linda Joy Myers (Don’t Call Me Mother), Heather Summerhayes Carriou (Sixty-five Roses), and Karen Walker (Following the Whispers) wrote five or more drafts and took at least ten years to complete their stories. It doesn’t have to take that long, but those piles of drafts and prolonged time of reflection give plenty of opportunity to consider multiple angles and other points of view as well as developing a full heart of compassion.

Baxter’s book was on bookstore shelves, available for purchase thirteen short months after she “came out” on Good Morning America and less than five years after she began her serious relationship with Nancy and began shedding the layers of secrecy and denial that had kept her locked in previous patterns. Her book, which she says took nine months to write, definitely has value, but if she had let the material age another year or few, her box wine story might have matured into a fine vintage one.

Write now: give deep thought to people you know who can be trusted to evaluate your work’s compassion index. Look for a trusted cluster of friends, preferably writer friends, who can challenge your assumptions and help you refine insights into the pure gold of wise compassion as you write. 

5 comments :

Jerry Waxler said...

Aspiring memoir writers have this apparently frustrating problem -- we know there is a story in our life experience but to tell it, we have to become story tellers. This takes time, and so, we march along, crafting the book, growing wiser about our lives, and building our skills as writers. Even if it takes 10 or 15 years, these turn out to be the most creative insightful years of our lives.

Jerry
Memory Writers Network

Sharon Lippincott said...

Jerry, thanks for your thoughts. As you say, judging from my own experience and others I know, the work of clarifying the story also clarifies life.

Maybe Meredith needed the cash--she claims she hasn't worked much lately. And also, unfinished as it may seem to some of us, it has inspired legions of women to make positive changes in their own lives.

She can always do a sequel.

Shirley said...

From box wine to vintage wine--hope I can get there too. Very insightful reading. I too look for blame and tone when I read, noting how mature or immature the voice sounds. It takes real genius to be both honest and compassionate. It can be done.

doradueck said...

I haven't read Meredith Baxter's book, but I appreciated this review and the reflections you brought out of it. I guess my question is, not in reference to Ms. Baxter but more generally, given how we continue to grow and "resolve" as we go through life's journey... how will we know the "best" time to set the story down? I'm of the view that memory, as marvellous and unique as it is in our sense of ourselves, is also surprisingly malleable -- so maybe we could write a different memoir every decade. I'm not trying to be a contrarian, but I do wonder about this.

Sharon Lippincott said...

Dora,
Of course we keep growing and developing, and yes, many people do write sequel memoirs. My point here want that her understanding still sounded "raw" to my ear. She wasn't exactly blaming, but compared, for example, to Boyd Lemon's memoir, DIGGING DEEP (to understand his part in three failed marriages) her insight seems a bit, well, shallow.

But I stick to my statement that ripe or raw, the volume has value.

It should be easy to find at any public library -- ask them to order if it's not there. Most libraries appreciate patron requests.