Tag Archives: memoir

Blogs become books. Can a memoir become a sitcom?

Moving to the other side of the cash wrap…felt as disorienting to me as Alice might have felt when she slipped through the mirror into Wonderland, landing unawares in…a world populated by Mad Hatters, rushing rabbits, chatty chess pieces, and enormous mushrooms. ~ Caitlin Kelly in MALLED

Behind the scenes. That’s where Caitlin Kelly takes readers in her memoir Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail (out April 14, 2011 from Portfolio). Today, I’m hosting Caitlin here to talk about her journey from an essay in the New York Times, to a memoir, to contract talks with CBS.

From Caitlin’s bio:

The book combines her personal story of moving into low-wage customer service at 50; others, mid-career and mid-recession, taking these jobs and a detailed, national analysis of this $4 trillion industry.

A regular contributor to The New York Times since 1990, Kelly has written for USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Glamour, More, and other publications in Canada and Europe. A former reporter for the New York Daily News, Toronto Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette, she is the winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award (humor), and five journalism fellowships. Born and raised in Canada, she has lived in the U.S. since 1988, and has also lived in England, France and Mexico.

As a bonus, Caitlin is giving away a signed copy of her memoir. At the end of her guest post, leave a comment to be entered into the drawing for a copy of Malled. Random.org will choose the winner on Tuesday, September 6th, at high noon.

 Welcome, Caitlin Kelly

If you’d told me that taking a low-wage job folding T-shirts in a suburban mall would lead to negotiating a contract with CBS on my birthday for a possible sitcom based on my life, I’d have laughed hysterically.

But that’s exactly what’s happened to me since Sept. 25, 2007 when I was hired to work as a part-time sales associate for The North Face at an upscale mall in White Plains, NY. I hadn’t worked a low-wage job since high school, was 50 and heading into a recession.

My own story quickly became just one of many in this ongoing recession. In February 2009, I published an essay in The New York Times business section explaining how moving from journalism – my only industry since graduating college in 1979 – to retail had turned out, then, to be a good choice for me. I liked the clarity of retail’s reported numbers: how much I sold per hour, my average daily sale, what percentage of my merchandise was later returned. In journalism, publishing and blogging, all judgments of value are totally subjective.

By June 2009, I had found an agent who felt confident we could find a publisher to take my memoir of working in the nation’s third-largest industry and single greatest source of new jobs. It wasn’t quite as quick and easy as we’d hoped, with 25 rejections before Portfolio, the business imprint of Penguin, bought it in September 2009.

I continued working in the store for another three months, taking many more notes than before, gathering as much detail, color, anecdote and dialogue as possible. No one at the company knew I was writing a book, and it felt strange to be writing things down while standing at the cash wrap.

I quit the job December 18, 2009 and began to write full-time. By June I was done, although revisions and some restructuring were necessary. Because retail is ever-changing, I read the business press every day, adding as necessary to keep the manuscript timely and up-to-date.

“Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published April 14, 2011 and received a terrific amount of national attention, with reviews and features in People, Marie-Claire, USA Today, The New York Times, Financial Times and Entertainment Weekly. I also appeared on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show (2 million listeners), Marketplace and The Brian Lehrer Show.

Emails soon started showing up from major entertainment companies expressing interest in it as a vehicle for film or television. I thought they were hoaxes! But by June 6, 2011, my birthday, we had an offer from CBS to option “Malled” as a possible sitcom. They have since commissioned a script. The next steps, I hope, are a pilot and a series; if so, I’m signed on as a story consultant for a few years.

This fairly quick journey from a Times essay to a book to a possible television show is a combination of factors: timing, luck, story, competition, voice and a tough agent. There have only been three other books I’m aware of now on the market that really describe in real time what it’s like to lose a good job, move down the economic ladder and tell the truth about how it feels. I was fortunate enough to find a good agent and an enthusiastic publisher. The book is written as a memoir, but it’s not just my story. I knew from the start that my story alone was insufficient, so it also includes dozens of original interviews with other sales associates nationwide, senior retail executives, Wall Street analysts and others.

One way I managed to get the book produced fairly quickly was – as I also did with my first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” – by hiring researchers. They conducted some of my interviews and gathered statistics.

In the past few weeks, I’ve spoken as the closing keynote at a retail conference in Minneapolis, celebrated the sale of “Malled” to China, where it will be translated, and chatted with the veteran screenwriter who’s now creating his characters, one of them based on me.

It’s all a little surreal, kind of exciting and a lot more fun than folding T-shirts.


Entertainment Weekly calls [Malled] “an excellent memoir” and USA Today says “Malled is a bargain, even at full price. Kelly is a first-rate researcher and storyteller.” Original interviews include consultant Paco Underhill, retailer Jack Mitchell and Costco CFO Richard Galanti.

Read more on Caitlin Kelly by visiting her website and her blog, Also, check out another book by Kelly, Blown Away, on American women and guns. Don’t forget to leave a comment, as well, for a chance to win a copy of her memoir.

Ride the internet waves.

Today, I’m guest posting at Lisa Rivero’s blog, Writing Life.

Lisa and I live within easy driving distance of each other, but it was the ever-expansive internet that brought us together. I won’t bore you with details on when and where we connected, or how long we “chatted” before we finally met in person (writers’ forums and social networking sounds a lot like online dating, don’t you think? Only we exchange website domains instead of phone numbers).

How Lisa and I met isn’t half as important as why I value her as a writing friend: her blog continues to inspire me, and she’s a constant bouy of support. So, jump on the broadband and slide on over to Lisa’s blog, where I write about how one genre of writing informs another:

On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction.

If you’re like me, you’re always in search of the perfect How-To book when it comes to the craft of writing, but sometimes the lessons are found in other books. You just have to pay attention.

Browse around Lisa’s blog, too, while you’re there. She publishes some great posts on writing and some amazing flash narratives.

Reflecting Life in Our Writing

I am never disappointed in The Writer magazine. True to form, when I paged through my December issue this month, I read another article that struck a chord at exactly the right moment.

I am finally – and seriously – back to work on my novel in progress, so much so that I named this draft “Signs of Life, for real this time.” It’s a story about a young woman named Gale, who’s mother is killed, and in losing family, Gale finds family – and forgiveness. I want to write this story with enough emotion but not too much, which has been one reason for procrastination: I’m afraid the story will read too dark and too heavy. I was relieved, then, to come upon David Harris Ebenbach’s essay in The Writer, “Writing Toward the Light.”

In his essay, Ebenbach focuses only on the short story, but many of his points can be applied to memoirs and novels as well. Ebenbach addresses his long-standing belief that, to be called “great,” a story must focus on “struggle and conflict” and pain. But, as he questions his own ideas and discovers several well-written and well-received stories that highlight a character’s “opportunities” instead of “struggles,” Ebenbach realizes that all writing must embody balance. He says:

“…[T]here’s nothing wrong, of course, with writing about darkness…darkness is a significant part of life. [But], light, of course, is also part of life, and as writers that ought to mean something to us.”

While definitions of literary fiction (like the one on Writer’s Relief, Inc.) say that “[l]iterary fiction tackles ‘big’ issues that are…controversial, difficult, and complex,” I need to remember Ebenbach’s point, that “difficult” in fiction (or memoir, for that matter) doesn’t have to mean all dark, all the time.

As Ebenbach says, “[readers] want to see the real world – in all its richness and complexity – reflected in literature.” And, isn’t that the way life rolls: the serious and the silly taking our focus in turns?

I know about death, about losing a mother, about the heaviness that settles and then hovers for months after. But, I also know about moments that surface during those dark times, moments that propel a person into a fit of laughter when laughter doesn’t seem possible.

Like when an overweight and messy driver ushers a grieving family into the back of a limo and then cruises down the road, from the funeral home to the church, at a high rate of speed. It’s only when he slams on the brakes and tosses the family around like rag dolls that the tension breaks and laughter erupts.

Those kind of moments in life give us a breather from a harsh reality long enough to gather strength; they are the moments that have us rolling on the couch the next day when we’re hung over on emotion.

And, those kinds of moments can turn up for the characters in our stories, as they face struggles, as well.

Ebenbach’s stress on balance in our writing gives me a broader perspective as I tackle more of this new draft, as I rearrange scenes in the novel, add new details, and weave the dark and light of emotion throughout the pages. I can’t throw in a humorous scene for the sake of “a breather” — every scene must still drive the plot forward. Yet, I shouldn’t be afraid to see the lighter side of a character’s life, even a character in pain.


Ebenbach, David Harris. “Writing Toward the Light.” The Writer. December 2010: 15-16. Print.


Pumping Up Your Image

During one of the early writing classes I took, I received a red envelope from my instructor, Ariel Gore. This wasn’t just any red envelope. It was small and was decorated with Vietnamese characters written in gold. A drawing of a young boy and a young girl, in what seemed to be ceremonial dress, bowed to each other.

The envelope held promise, but I wasn’t allowed to open it until Ariel gave the instructions.

We were to choose an event we wanted to write about, she said, a powerful image from our past or a scene from a story in progress. Inside the red envelope was a series of cards with questions. We were to pull out the cards, one at a time, without peeking). She wanted us to answer each question and then use those responses to write – or rewrite – our story.

There was no order to the questions, and we didn’t have to answer them all. But, even the few that I drew were enough to widen my perspective of the scene, to see what the character saw, and to incorporate details I overlooked when I had written an earlier draft.

I loved this writing exercise.

The little red envelope appeared mystical with it’s Vietnamese writing, the hopeful expressions of the young boy and girl, and the secret cards; it was bound to do magic on my writing.

The assignment wasn’t daunting; all I had to do was read and answer a few questions. I could even make up the answers. There was no wrong way to do it.

And, the answers put me front and center into the image. They helped me color the scene, add texture, and reveal insight into my character.

As I stepped behind my character’s eyes, I drew these cards:

  • About how old are you?
  • What is to your left?
  • What is to your right?
  • Is anyone else in the image?
  • Why are you there?
  • Is there anyone who just left or who may be coming?
  • What are some of the sounds in the image?
  • What does the air smell like?

I thought it would be fun to try this exercise again. Here’s a snippet of a story – a before and after. Hopefully, the power of the exercise will still shine through:


One by one they got up from the bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed upstairs with me. He wanted to smoke, so I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside onto the roof.

There, under the stars, we sat on a small ledge. He smoked. I pulled in my knees and wrapped up in a blanket. We talked. For a long time, we just talked. He laughed at my jokes. But still, he looked me in the eyes when he spoke. I sat with him until the mosquitoes got the best of me.

After: *

At twenty-one years old, I was accustomed to staying awake into the wee hours of the morning. But, I wasn’t used to being woken up at 3am by a posse of four. My roommate Mollie, her friend Jan, and two guys I had just met all sat on Mollie’s bed, across the room from mine. They stared at me and giggled. Knowing they weren’t leaving any time soon, I sat up, wrapped my comforter around me, and listened while they recounted their evening.

Their tale ended, and one by one they got up from Mollie’s bed. Jan went to the bathroom. Brian needed food. Mollie went downstairs and put on music. But Paul stayed in the room with me. As the sounds of Jimi Hendrix climbed the stairs, Paul stood up.

“I need a smoke,” he said. “Can we go out on the roof?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. I wasn’t tired any more.

I opened the bedroom window and we climbed outside. The roof was cool and the air crisp. I pulled my comforter out with me, and we sat on a small ledge that jutted out just enough. We sat side by side, my toes barely over the edge and Paul’s legs dangling.

Paul lit a match, and, even though I didn’t smoke, the first whiff of his cigarette filled my nose with a satisfaction. We sat under the stars and talked about the fresh smell of Spring time in the morning – wet grass and dirt, about the quiet, and the light of the full moon.

It was easy, sitting there with Paul. I pulled in my knees but let the comforter fall off of one shoulder. For a long time, we just talked. He looked me in the eyes when he spoke. And, he laughed at my jokes. I sat with him past the last drag of his cigarette, through the songs of the early morning birds, until the mosquitoes and hunger got the best of us.

Whether you write memoir or fiction, your story is full of imagery. Details settle the reader into time and place, and they give flavor and richness to your story.

If you’re considering a rewrite, ask yourself this: From behind whose eyes does your story unfold?

Who’s got the angle on perspective?

And then, answer a few simple questions of your own.


* Funny, I said I wasn’t going to write flash fiction every Wednesday for a while. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.


Breaking the Rules: Using Present Tense in Fiction

In my copy of the 1922 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, she says “…a first rule for behavior in society is: ‘Try to do and say those things only which will be agreeable to others.'” So, I wonder if I’ll be ruffling any feathers when I publish this post on writing a novel in present tense?

I know. Throw “present tense” in the midst of a discussion on fiction and you beg for trouble, maybe even set the stage for a form rejection.

But hear me out.

My first writing teacher, Ariel Gore, reminded us one day that a good memoir reads like fiction and great fiction can read like a memoir. The art of the narrative is critical in both genres.

Writers of creative nonfiction often use fiction techniques. And, once in a while, a technique for writing memoir crosses over into fiction. I first considered how the practice of writing memoir can influence a work of fiction in a post I wrote on Stanley Kunitz, Memoir and Fiction. When I flipped open my June issue of The Writer and read an article by Mimi Schwartz on using present tense in memoir, I wondered again about transferable techniques.

I punched out the first draft of my current novel-in-progress during NaNoWriMo two years ago.  In thirty days, I wrote a little over 50,000 words of a story that unfolded in present tense. At the time, I was very much a novice writer and didn’t consider the rule that fiction is usually written in past tense. I didn’t consider anything. I was hunched over a keyboard chasing down a character and her tale before she got away. In the end, I was thrilled at having written a full story, even in its most raw stage.

In between the first draft and a serious rewrite, I read a novel that is written in present tense. I barely made it through the novel; each chapter sounded like a running commentary. So, when I sat down to study and rework chapter one of my WIP, I weighed my options: keep the story as is – in present tense – and risk losing the reader after the first few pages, or rework the story into past tense.

As an emerging writer, I wanted to learn my craft (and earn my way) by following the rules first; I could break them later. So, I changed the tense of the story. Each time I re-read my new version of chapter one, though, something pulled at the back of my throat. My gut twisted. My head was telling me to go one way, but the story insisted I go another.

Isn’t that just how it works sometimes? The story has a mind of it’s own, and I am simply a conductor. I couldn’t ignore the pull to return to present tense.

Here’s where Mimi Schwartz’s article (“The special power of present tense”) comes in. Schwartz mentions a few specific ways that present tense can strengthen memoir.

“For creative nonfiction writers, the act of discovery is what makes the genre so appealing.”

When reading a story written in present tense, the audience experiences the immediacy of the character’s own discoveries, adding to the suspense of the story.

Schwartz also says that using present tense can highlight the main character’s “[changes] over time.” Sure, you can do this with past tense as well, but Schwartz emphasizes her point by sharing her own experience when she used it her memoir Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village:

“…[T]he village and the villagers kept drawing me back, literally and figuratively, into their living rooms and kitchens, as I tried to uncover why these people mattered to me in New Jersey, 70 years later. And the present tense let the reader come along; we walk together in my father’s old world, trying to figure it out.”

Writing fiction in present tense can be a stylistic choice that taps into the readers senses and emotion on a deeper level.

There’s still a part of me that worries I’m biting off more than can chew, being so green and all, but I like a challenge. And I also like to listen to the way the story wants to be told. That means, my choice to stick with present tense must be a stylistic move and not a way of avoiding a major restructuring of a draft. Throughout the whole rewriting process, I must make each word, phrase, and passage count.

What are your experiences with present tense? Have you written a short story or a novel that cried out for it? Or, have you read a novel that used it successfully?


Schwartz, Mimi. “The special power of present tense.” The Writer. June 2010: 26-27. Print.

Post, Emily. Etiquette. United States of America: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1922. p.  Print.


My Secret Map – Writing Exercise

Linda Lappin’s guest post a few days ago, on “the soul of place,” struck a chord with me (if you haven’t read it yet, back up a post before you read more here). She spoke on maps and how – often – the physicality of layout eclipses a greater meaning.

“We all have our private maps of the neighborhoods, houses, rooms and other places where we have lived.”

“Such maps are uniquely individual to each lover of a place.  No two will be alike. Our private maps attempt to localize and identify the “quality” or spirit of place as it has interacted with us on an individual basis and influenced our lives.”

The writing exercise at the end of her post asks the writer to choose an environment, or a space in time, and explore feelings and experiences associated with that time or place. I read her post and her exercise, and then I pulled out a memoir piece I wrote well over a year ago. The piece is a short essay that grew from writing prompt entitled “where I’m from.” I wrote about the house where I lived from the time I was eleven until I moved out at twenty.

My memories of that house stick with me like the warm sun on the first Spring day, or like the weight of a heavy stone I’m forced to carry. Once in a long while, I drive by the house, to make sure it’s still standing. To remind myself that it was real. To stretch my neck and peer into the windows, looking for life inside.

I worked Linda’s exercise with that memoir piece – that house – in mind. Choosing a few significant places in the house and drawing a sketch of the layout was easy. The bigger challenge came in drawing a line from site to site and writing down a verb that described that connection. I knew each line marked a passage, to safety or discovery. Eventually, I wrote down these verbs: discover, hide, open, close. Another word that rose to the surface – not a verb but still significant – was “secrets.”

After Linda’s exercise, I took two paragraphs from the original piece and rewrote them.

The original text:

That house seized me the first week we moved in. My bedroom wasn’t finished yet, the fancy wallpaper still had to be hung. So I slept upstairs in the exercise room at the other end of the hallway. The room felt huge, with just a bed and no other furniture. There was a door that led to the attic. Strangely, the door could be locked from the outside. To keep something in, I wondered?

That door, in partnership with a large oak tree right outside the window, filled me with fear most nights. I would stand at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I would click and run, one-two-three steps, then dive onto the bed. I had to time it just right, so that milliseconds after the click I would be safely under covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. So I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep. I hated that room.

The new version:

From the first week we moved in, that house seized me.

My bedroom sat empty at one end of the hallway, the walls chalky and unfinished. The floor bare of any furniture. It smelled of new construction, but it was uninhabitable. For the first several weeks, I slept in the extra room at the other end of the hallway – a space that would later be termed the exercise room.

The exercise room took up twice as much space as a regular bedroom. A window looked out onto a large oak tree that blocked my view of the back yard. Under the shadow of night, the tree morphed into a series of crooked arms.

Opposite the window was a door that led into a walk-in attic. The attic housed some sort of HVAC unit and one of the bull horns for the house alarm system. After we first moved in, the alarm went off at the slightest provocation. If I was in that room when it sounded, I didn’t stay long. One piercing howl from the alarm sent me bolting out the door and down a flight of stairs in two jumps.

And, for reasons unknown, the attic door locked from the outside.

To keep something in, I was sure.

At eleven years old, I stood at the doorway of that room at bedtime, bookended by a crooked old monster and a cave. My only refuge was the bed set up in the middle of the room. I stood at the doorway, one hand on the light switch and the other pulled back in a running stance. I had to time the click of the light and my run to safety just right, so that milliseconds after the light went out, I would be safe under covers.

I focused on the bed, my target. I took a breath. I flipped the switch.

In one-two-three long strides, I was close enough to jump the remaining distance to the bed and slide under the covers. If I looked over at the window and saw the tree, I was doomed. If the house alarm went off, I slept downstairs.

I pulled up the covers and stared at the ceiling until I fell asleep.

Did you try Linda’s exercise? What discoveries came to light as you sketched your secret map?


Fiction vs. Memoir

On Salon.com, Laura Miller wrote “A new book says: Fiction is dead, long live the age of autobiography,” in which she reviews Ben Yagoda’s book Memoir: A History. Laura Miller quotes Ben Yagoda when he claims fiction has become “like painting in the age of photography — a novelty item.”

He isn’t the first to say that nonfiction, including memoir, sells better than fiction. Nathan Bransford, in his recent article in the Huffington post, said “for many years adult nonfiction was the bread and butter workhorse of the industry.”  It isn’t that fiction is better than non, or vice versa, it just seems to be a fact that we are drawn to the stories of real people more often than the tales of our made-up friends.

It’s easy to slide on over to the nonfiction section in the bookstore and get caught up in the lives of real people suffering, and surviving. Reality TV plays a big part in our attraction to the memoir, as does our need to know that someone out in the real world might be worse off than we are. I think Laura Miller would agree, since she says “the characters and events in memoirs are often, like real people and events, the subjects of energetic controversy….”  Even when we know the ending of the story, we still ravage ourselves with the details.

So, Laura Miller’s article got me thinking. I like memoir, but I also like good fiction. I walked into the bookstore today with my daughter determined to leave with a new novel. While she twirled and tumbled in the middle of the store, I scanned the Indie Bound bookshelves.

I’m terrible at making decisions under pressure, so I let her pick out a book. She finally sat down on a couch, and I turned and found a bookcase of all the Best American anthologies. When I saw Alice Sebold edited the The 2009 Best American Short Stories, I stopped looking.

Alice Sebold’s introduction also acknowledges recent trends in the publishing industry. She says “highlighting good fiction is more important now than it ever has been.” I agree. She could have been talking about memoir or fiction when she writes “a story about grief can comfort; a story about arrogance can shock and yet confirm; a story populated largely by landscape, whether lush or industrial, can expand the realm that we as individuals inhabit.” But, she insists that great fiction narrative is just as critical to the publishing industry as great memoir.

If nonfiction is the mainstay that pushes the publishing industry through a recession, then taking risks and publishing fiction becomes even more critical.

“Stories provide an endless access into another world, brought forth by an infinite number of gifted minds,” Alice Sebold writes. Great fiction, like memoir, must find readers. And, it can’t find an audience if it’s never published.

I can’t wait to dive into the stories Alice Sebold deems Best of the best.


Sebold, Alice, ed. The Best American Short Stories. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.