Analyzing Kay Jamison: What to Shoot for in Writing Your Bipolar Memoir
Last week, I posted a piece that offered pointers on writing a bipolar memoir. Let’s continue the discussion by analyzing your competition. I have selected two wholly different memoirs, one a celebrated classic, the other far more modest.
An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison
This memoir sets the standard on so many levels, the most important being that the author has a story to tell, knows how to tell it, and has the guts to tell it. Add to that the considerable gifts Dr Jamison brings to the table - intellect, insight, literary chops.
On top of that, back in 1995, Dr Jamison had virtually the whole market to herself. Not only that, people writing about their other conditions or disabilities had already primed demand. You, by contrast, will be facing the phenomenon of “memoir fatigue.”
Moreover, Dr Jamison had her singular double-whammy of professional expertise and personal experience going for her. With two wildly successful books to her name, she had already established herself as an authority, if THE authority. Which poses the question: Who the hell are you and why should we be interested in your story?
There was talk many years ago of turning An Unquiet Mind into a motion picture. I recall, back in 2003, joking with Dr Jamison that Julie Roberts should play her. Actually, this wasn’t as much a joke as you might think: Had an actress with the clout of Julie Roberts been interested, the movie definitely would have been made.
Years and years later, An Unquiet Mind still resonates, strong enough to elicit this praise from a 2011 piece in The Guardian:
The writing is clear and beautiful, the descriptions accurate, the interior world she evokes is furiously alive. In the 16 years since An Unquiet Mind was first published, no greater book about manic depression – or bipolar disorder – has appeared.
So, knowing all that, what do you - dear aspiring memoir-writer - have to offer that Dr Jamison hasn’t already provided?
Bipolar Girl by Maricela Estrada
Maricela is no Kay Jamison, and this is her greatest asset. Maricela grew up in a world of drive-by shootings in the wrong part of LA. She’s young, she’s still learning the ropes, and every day is a major challenge. This is the story of a woman who falls down seven times and gets up eight. But even as she finishes on an upbeat note, you know that falls eight, nine, and ten are coming.
Will she get up that eleventh time?
Needless to say, I far more closely identify with Maricela than I do with Dr Jamison. For Dr Jamison, I can sing high literary praise. For Maricela, I just want to jump through the pages to protect her when she’s vulnerable and cheer her on when she’s strong.
Maricela self-published Bipolar Girl in 2009. An editor in a mainstream publishing house would have demanded a lot more work on the manuscript, a task no publisher - unless you’re already famous - has time for.
But here is the crucial question, one every would-be memoir-writer needs to consider: Could Hollywood turn your story into a movie?
In Maricela’s case, I have no doubt.
Take home message ...
In my previous piece, I placed great stress on the fact that you are writing a memoir for yourself, not anyone else. But if you do expect to find an audience, then your work needs to compare favorably with Dr Jamison’s.
Settling for anything less is a crime against your readers.
If you lack the ability to match Dr Jamison along numerous narrative and literary and name-recognition benchmarks, then you need to find another way to earn your readers’ trust, especially in today's glutted market. Take a look at Maricela’s book. Clearly, she did something right.