Elegance is a crutch, albeit pretty one, when you think about it. But regarding serious nonfiction, it’s all I’ve got. Frankly, if I were to actually write a work of serious nonfiction, I’d be screwed because I don’t have any of the requisite credentials associated with the topic I’m writing about—at least, not any official credentials. So, I wouldn’t ever land an agent with this book, and even if I did, I’d never attract a publisher. It’s a good thing the book I’m writing for this assignment is hypothetical, because if it wasn’t, a quick trip to the discount table is the best I could hope for (and the knee-deep pile of the “polite rejection letters” mentioned by Rabiner would be more realistic).

So, given that the chapter we’re writing is for a hypothetical book, can I just make up some credentials? The chapter I’ll be writing (and the associated editorial proposal) is about Buddhafield. I’ve never joined a cult for a few obvious reasons, but for this assignment, can I say that I’m an escaped member? You know… maybe I lived in that commune for years before escaping with nothing more than a bag of Cheetos and my cult-issued pair of speedos. That would even make for a snappy chapter title: “Cheetos and Speedos.” Who wouldn’t want to read that?

Once I address the credentials shortfall, I’ll need to address all my “audience identification problems.” And admittedly, I had a few. I had originally intended to write what Rabiner referred to as a “character driven work of narrative nonfiction.” I figured I’d be great at “wringing” out the meaning: “meaning that transcends the details of an event,” but the specific meaning at which I’d aim was nebulous until I read about Rabiner’s fictional “women who kill.” She said that if the pretend author were to amend the scope of his work slightly to be about “women who kill their children,” it’d broaden the general interest because all mothers would want to read such a work. Supposedly, they’d want to learn what spurs mothers to commit infanticide so they’d be able to flesh-out the aberrant trait within themselves, if it existed. And once I started thinking about it, I realized that I could market my work similarly: we all wonder what leads people to join a cult—what convinces a heterosexual male to join a cult like Buddhafield wherein he’s raped routinely by a gay, failed ballet dancer slash washed-up porn star like “Michel,” the founder (I put his name in quotation marks because the guy changes it at least once a decade to avoid pitchfork-wielding mobs).

What is missing from these peoples’ lives that leads them to join a cult? Do all the members have some sort of deficiency, some sort of mental marking, which I can root-out and show to my readers? And if I did so, would my book rocket to the top of the best-selling list because everyone would want to make sure they’re not at risk for joining a cult? I’d like to think so, because that curiosity is alive and well in my mind. I remember the first time I watched a documentary on Jonestown. These same questions popped up in my head: is there any part of my psyche that’s weak enough to be seduced by a cult leader? Would I have let my wife be ransacked by that cult leader like the other two-hundred or so tranced male members of that cult? Would I be brainwashed enough to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid when the time came to “ascend”? Or worse, if I were a child, would my mom have given me the drink of death like all those other mothers did in the late 70s?

I think that if I address these questions, I’ll broaden my potential audience, and I’ll not “exclude even one potential buyer” as Rabiner put it. I think I’ve considered adequately the “people who buy books,” and out of them, I’ve also considered the people who’d be  receptive to my “treatment” of this subject, as she put it. Granted, I’ll still rely heavily on the gratuitous spectacle that’s inherent to cults—we all like to be outsiders looking in because it reassures us that it can always be worse—but I’ve decided to hone down my message per Rabiner’s suggestion, and I’ll try to pique that inner curiosity we all have in regard to this subject: would I ever join a cult?  And in that vein, I’ve decided to make that “big, daring decision about the scope” of my book. The title (or a rough version of it anyway): “Buddhafield Followers: Would you Join a Cult?”

jonestown-suicide-massacre

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2 thoughts on “Serious Nonfiction #3

  1. Great job of reflecting on Rabiner’s suggestions about subject matter and audience, and using her points to refine your idea. Having credentials that align with one’s topic is ideal, but plenty of serious nonfiction books are written by non-expert writers/journalist who dedicate themselves to researching/experiencing the subject matter. In this post, I think you’ve hit upon a good angle that would interest a broad readership (the psychological question of what drives people join cults and to go through with everything they entail). With that question front and center, you could structure the book around several different cults (i.e., one per chapter), or keep the focus on Buddhafield if you feel there’s enough to research, describe, and explain there. Lastly, if your there’s another nonfiction topic that might align better with your potential platform as an author, then now’s the time to consider doing it instead. The Buddhafield/cult idea certainly works, but less hypothetical is always better — you’re a strong writer, so you should go forward with a topic that you genuinely want to turn into something real, even if it’s down the road.

  2. Hey Jesse,

    I’ve just left Bethany’s blog where she expressed interest in Rabiner’s fictional “Women Who Kill” only to find your fascination with “Michel!” “I might be in the wrong group,” Angel whispered, shrinking away and hoping that Bethany and Jesse wouldn’t hear her and thus drag her into their cult where the men are vile and so are the women! But then she remembered that she’s never been one to get dragged away easily, so she went back to sipping her iced coffee from Starbucks (OH the horrors of corporate America!!) and thought about being serious, non-fictionally speaking, of course.

    I don’t know what else to say, other than if you pretend to write a book about a non-existent cult, I will sit in the Jesse section of the bookstore to read it.

    ~ Angel

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