What Writers Can Learn About Courage From Hillbilly Elegy

Much has been written about J.D. Vance’s powerful and timely memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It shot to the top of the bestseller list in 2016, and became one of those books that seemed to capture the zeitgeist. Everyone was reading it and everyone was talking about it, whether they were talking about politics, the economy, the election, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, college admissions, and more. Early in 2017, Ron Howard won the rights to produce and direct the film version of the story, and the coronation seemed complete.

No one can predict this kind of wild success for a book, or plan for it, but there were several very brave and bold things Vance did in the memoir that we can all learn from as we work to bring our own stories to life:

1. Dare to think big.

Every memoir starts out small: a story about one part of one one person’s life. If a memoir stays small, however, it can often be deadly. It can read like someone’s journal — unstructured and self-indulgent, with nothing meaningful to offer the reader.

The trick is to connect your story to something larger. To make the specific seem universal. To consider how your story might say something about what is going on elsewhere in the world. The Deadline Hollywood piece that announced the Ron Howard movie deal honed in on this truth: “Although the memoir was specific to Vance, it was embraced as a personification of the everyday struggles of America’s white underclass, and it shone a light on issues including race and privilege in America.”

You don’t have to make a commentary on an entire region, class or way of life the way Vance did, but you do have to lift your head and look at the horizon — at the world in which your book will live, at the people who you hope will read it. You have to dare to think big.

Note that this lesson applies whether you are writing memoir, nonfiction or fiction. The reason Toy Story is so good — ALL the Toy Story movies — is because they are never just about interesting things that toys do or clever toy scenarios. At the center of the story are characters grappling with what it means to be a toy.

2. Tell the truth, but don’t be vindictive.

Vance pulls no punches in his memoir. He speaks of the entitlement and laziness of some of his high school classmates, depicts his mother’s reckless neglect, and reveals the drug abuse of many of the townspeople in the areas where he grew up. He is not sugar-coating anything, but nor is he telling us anything just for the drama of it; he strikes a perfect balance. Many reviewers commented upon this aspect of the book. In his New Yorker review, Joshua Rothman spoke about Vance’s compassion: “Only an insider can speak about his community with honest anguish. `Hillbilly Elegy’ is especially compelling because Vance writes with the sorrowful judgment of a betrayed yet loyal son.”

Look carefully at that description: sorrowful judgment is much kindler and gentler than harsh judgment. It’s judgment that wished it weren’t judgmental. And betrayed yet loyal has the same sort of tinge to it — not betrayed and bitter or betrayed and vindictive. Betrayed yet still loyal. These nuances are critical to the success of the book. People who set out to even a score or get revenge or hammer home a message tend not to write very compelling memoirs because we don’t trust them.

We want the truth to be sure — it’s the reason we come to books. Regular life doesn’t tend to give us much truth and we are grateful when authors step up and tell it like it is. But we need the REAL truth, not a facsimile of the truth. And telling the real truth usually means revealing something about ourselves we’d rather not reveal — such as the fact that we are judgmental of our own people, and the fact that we feel betrayed but still compelled to be loyal.

3. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.

Due to the success of his book, Vance has been asked to speak for entire populations (which is an impossible task), to comment upon massively complex hot-button issues and problems (also supremely difficult), and attacked from every quarter for what he wrote and didn’t write.

Writing in the Washington Post, for example, Betsy Radar says, “Vance’s sweeping stereotypes are shark bait for conservative policymakers. They feed into the mythology that the undeserving poor make bad choices and are to blame for their own poverty, so taxpayer money should not be wasted on programs to help lift people out of poverty. Now these inaccurate and dangerous generalizations have been made required college reading.”

And in The New Republic, Sarah Jones writes, “Elegy is little more than a list of myths about welfare queens repackaged as a primer on the white working class.”

Hearing such things written about your work is not easy. In fact, in an article in The Atlantic, an interviewer asked Vance and his mentor, Amy Chua, author of the controversial memoir, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom? about how they dealt with the controversy. Vance replied, “When I saw Amy responding to the firestorm created by her book, I just assumed that she just went about her day thinking, `Well, who cares what these people think.’ It was really nice to hear that she was as bothered by criticism as I was.” And Chua added, “That’s how it goes. Ninety-nine good things could happen, and all you can focus on is that one teeny-tiny piece of criticism.”

Thinking about what it is really like to take a stand and raise your voice and face the consequences makes you realize how very brave these writers are. We can honor them by doing whatever we can in our own work to speak with authenticity and courage.

4. Let people help.

I tried not to read a lot online about Hillbilly Elegy while I was busy NOT reading it; I didn’t want to know too much. So when I read in the pages of the book that Amy Chua — who in addition to being the author of the memoir mentioned, above, is a Yale law school professor — was a mentor and an inspiration to Vance, I was completely surprised. Something about that seems totally improbable and also totally natural.

Chau was herself the author of a wildly popular and wildly controversial memoir that tapped into the zeitgeist. If anyone understands what it’s like to go big, speak the truth, and lean into controversy, it’s her.

What struck me about the relationship between the two — Vance the student and Chau, the professor and established author — was that Vance allowed Chau to help him. He accepted her help and took her advice. This is much easier said than done, especially for writers, who tend to work alone and who tend to carry so much doubt about their stories.

In order to accept help, you have to actually write, for one thing, and then you have to share your pages with people, and then you have to listen to what they say and discern which part of it to accept and which part of it to reject. These, too, are things that take a great deal of courage.

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