I know, I know, agents are not interested in memoir, yet they openly admit they don’t know what sells. So why do we listen to them?
It’s crazy because “Based on a True Story” sells. True stories are Hollywood’s darlings, and when we settle into our seats getting ready to watch a film and the words “Based on a True Story” flash across the screen, we think, “Oh, I didn’t know that,” or “Oh, this should be interesting”. Our minds process the information differently than, say, fiction. Non-fiction engages the brain by striking its lightning bolt straight into our hearts in a way that fiction simply does not.
This is not to say fiction isn’t amazing and wonderful, it is, it’s just that I don’t know if non-fiction, true stories, and memoir get the respect that they deserve.
Whenever I’m in the middle of a boring lecture and the guy or gal behind the podium announces, “This reminds me of the time…” I immediately wake up, and I’m willing to wager, so does everyone else. True stories are a social education. Much of fiction, like fairy tales, is based on ethics and morals, which are steeped and brewed in lessons in reality. Sometimes I prefer my reality without a creamy layer of fiction on top.
I doubt very much if the true story of Chris McCandless (the young guy who left civilization behind to immerse himself in the pure nature of Alaska) as told by Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, would have had the same gravity and intensity had it been fiction. I just finished reading it, so it’s fairly fresh in my mind. And to be honest, it’s not a book I would have normally read, but I’m glad I did. I was intrigued by the range of emotions I felt for the main character, both strongly negative and positive.
It also reminded me of how much I miss the American West and spurred me to reread my favorite short story, Stickeen, by John Muir. I’m not even a dog lover, but that piece of writing, for me, romanticizes Alaska (I know, I’m weird) and is terribly touching and remarkable. Again, another unbelievable story, made sublime, because it actually happened.
In the beginning was the Word, was the myth, was the song, and now, the challenge is to hunt down those true tales that bring us around the proverbial campfire just like the old epics did. I think we need them again, but we need them to be real.
Hey, I’m not a big time author, but I’ve had folks privately and publicly email me regarding my Waldorf teacher story. I was fired, but I wanted to share my experiences as objectively as possible so the reader could judge for herself what was happening at the school. Thoughtful people have thanked me for sharing what happened, and I blush when I think about how open and personal they were to me in regards to their own struggles with the educational system and otherwise. Those connections really blew the gate off for me because I had no idea so many people had gone through similar ordeals.
True stories are teachers, too. Perhaps I should say true stories are first and foremost our teachers. Yet, they are not only our social educators. They are outreach programs that allow all of us a chance to listen and relate – and more importantly feel connected in a meaningful way.
Lani V Cox is an English teacher residing in Chiang Rai Thailand. She blogs about teaching, writing and her experiences as an Asian American expat at Life, the Universe and Lani.