How to Pitch a Memoir Without a Big, Fat Narrative Hook

18 Sep

Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, about growing up poor in Kansas was recently longlisted for the National Book Award.

The challenge of pitching a memoir is often the same as writing one: unlike novels, most lives lack a clear narrative arc with defined turning points. They don’t have a narrative hook big enough to catch a white whale. Instead, many memoirs contain a series of anecdotes held together by a theme (which is often closely associated with a place or situation). They offer the texture of a life and the pleasure of seeing a thing clearly.

This is the case with Sarah Smarsh’s new memoir Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. We can learn a lot from how it is pitched.

The Pitch

Here’s the official jacket copy:

During Sarah Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, she moved more than twenty times within the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm. Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty. Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job, she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

In my last post, I introduced nine essential parts of a pitch. I used a novel for a model, but the same parts can be found in pitches for memoirs as well. Here they are for Heartland.

The General Situation: 1980s and 1990s

The Setting: the same small patch of Kansas: a trailer, apartments and houses in Wichita, her grandparents’ enduring farm

The Overarching Conflict: Born a fifth-generation Kansas wheat farmer on her father’s side and the descendent of generations of teen pregnancy on her mother’s Smarsh grew up in a family of laborers trapped in a cycle of poverty.

The Main Character: the author

Why This Story Now: Smarsh challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and at pervasive myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

The Most Important Secondary Character: mother, father, grandma

How the Story Plays Out: Whether working the wheat harvest, helping on her dad’s construction sites, or visiting her grandma’s courthouse job

The Deeper Conflict: she learned about hard work. She also absorbed painful lessons about economic inequality.

Genre Indicator: By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves,

Not all of these elements are weighted the same. There was a lot going on politically in the rural Midwest during the 80s, and it’s in the book, but she doesn’t mention any of it in the pitch. Perhaps ironically for a memoir, she also doesn’t say a lot about herself. Instead, the focus is on the place she’s from and details about her family and the lessons she drew from her childhood. (Which is why she identifies three secondary characters instead of just one.) Probably because the memoir doesn’t really focus on herself, the big thematic elements of the pitch receive more weight and (literally) more words on the page.

One takeaway from this pitch is that it’s important to understand your story’s takeaways—the things that people will be talking about after they read it. Hit on as many of the basic elements as you can but stress the ones that are most compelling.

Even fairly similar stories can have very different pitches depending on how that story is told. For example, Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle shares some things in common with Heartland. Both narrators grew up poor and moved around a lot. The events in Walls’ childhood, though, are more extreme and unusual than those of Smarsh’s childhood. Here’s that book’s jacket copy:

The Glass Castle is a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant. When sober, Jeannette’s brilliant and charismatic father captured his children’s imagination, teaching them physics, geology, and how to embrace life fearlessly. But when he drank, he was dishonest and destructive. Her mother was a free spirit who abhorred the idea of domesticity and didn’t want the responsibility of raising a family.

The Walls children learned to take care of themselves. They fed, clothed, and protected one another, and eventually found their way to New York. Their parents followed them, choosing to be homeless even as their children prospered.

The Glass Castle is truly astonishing—a memoir permeated by the intense love of a peculiar but loyal family.

In Walls’ book, the author’s own particular narrative arc takes precedence. For example, the memoir begins with her recognizing her mother homeless on the street. A clearer arc and more unusual events aren’t necessarily better for a memoir, though. They just make for a different story. Indeed, part of Smarsh’s point is that her story is lived out by millions of people. The pitch for The Glass Castle focuses on the things that happened to Walls while Heartland’s pitch focuses more on the thematic elements. No surprise, then, that meaning-making occupies a more prominent role in Smarsh’s book than Walls’.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write a memoir pitch that hits on all of the essential parts, using Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Find the balance in your narrative. Can your individual story carry a lot of weight? Does it have a thematic point it wants to make? On a (very rough) continuum of plot versus meaning, where does your story fall?
  2. Build up the elements that must carry the pitch’s weight. If readers will walk away with lessons, focus on those lessons. If readers will walk away with anecdotes and stories, focus on those. Which details can you add to the pitch and its different elements that hammer home the kind of story you’re telling?
  3. Don’t abandon the other elements. The pitch for Heartland hits every element, giving a lot of detail for some and only a few for others. The pitch for The Glass Castle includes some meaning-making (“a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption”). A complete story (and pitch) does both.

Good luck!

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