An Insider’s View of Publishing a Memoir: Congratulations, Who Are You Again?
No matter where you are in your journey to memoir, Harrison Scott Key has been there. His book, Congratulations, Who are You Again? is a memoir about his dream to publish his first memoir. That memoir, The World’s Largest Man, went on to win the Thurber Prize in American Humor in 2016.
Though he won that prestigious prize, Congratulations, Who are You Again, starts out in a place many more of us are familiar with, at the bottom when he was just an unpublished writer with the dream of more. We ride along with Key as he struggles with early drafts, rejection from literary magazines, ultimately finding his voice, and birthing his memoir about his father.
Like every writer I know, including myself, he speaks of the writing process as something he cannot live without. He takes jobs that allow him to prioritize writing and does so early in the morning before work, the part of the day he cannot wait for:
“An elastic bungee cord pulled me toward the coffee shop, and I jumped into the truck, ran stop signs and red lights, in all weather, blueblack cold and hot soupy rain, hoping to be at the door when they unlocked it, already in the underwater of my imagination”
He writes for years and does not produce any work that he feels is good. We see him struggle and get rejected. Finally he begins to realize his voice and understand the art of storytelling:
“A story is a an old-fashioned treasure hunt, and what makes it so very hard for the writer is that when you start to write you don’t necessarily know the nature of the treasure or even what the map looks like. All you need is a human with an empty place inside them they’re hoping to fill. We turn the page because we all have the hole in us too, and we’re all trying to fill it, and we’re hoping the story will give us some ideas about how to do that.”
Once he realizes what is is he wants to write — humor —he begins to find his way, getting published in literary magazines, finding an agent, and later scoring a publishing contract. He takes us deep into the process, discussing the details of such things as the punishing process of writing his book proposal, and in this way the book provides a real behind the scenes look at how the publication process really goes.
Then after the book’s publication we watch him slog his way across the country on a book tour obsessively checking his Amazon reviews and sales rank while waiting for the elusive call of Terry Gross. When people do come to readings he says they are a mix of family, friends, and onlookers with different objectives:
“I feel certain every memoir is a performance around a dinner table, and the table is peopled with family and friends and strangers, and the strangers are there to gawk and learn and the friends are there for moral support and the family members are there to set the record straight”
The book does not hold back on the details, from the money he made, to the heartbreak of doing a reading to slightly full room. As a humorist, Key doesn’t take himself too seriously, and delivers the material with heart. In the end, though, the endless promotion of the book as it makes its way back down the sales ranks makes him question if his dream has come true:
“The problem with your dream coming true is you never quite know when it happens.”
But later as he begins to bring his family on the book tour with him, he has little moments that help him understand the true nature of his dream. For him, his family was the reason he wanted to write and sharing it with them means more than anything else.
For me, I found Key’s observations on dreams to be poignant. Even as I dream about getting to the point Key did, where he was rejected by Terry Gross after a pre-interview interview, I know that the writing is still the thing that I’m passionate about. I would never want to forget that. In Key’s words: