Saturday, 28 July 2012

For A Dancer (Emma L Stephens)

--The blurb--
"Brought up in an environment riddled with substance abuse and neglect, Emma has big dreams and little chance of ever reaching them. By the age of fourteen she is on her own, determined to escape the mentality that has crippled her family, but to succeed would mean leaving behind her sister and betraying the only life she's ever known. From the Virginia countryside to the streets of Paris, through teenage motherhood and higher education, share Emma's tears and triumphs as she searches for acceptance in an exclusive world and finds love in the most unlikely of places."

--The review--
Over the past few years, it has become clear to the media, to universities, and most importantly to many students themselves and their families that a university education is no longer a golden ticket. Once the 'open sesame' to many prestigious jobs, it is now little more than an expensive library card, and the dismay associated with unemployment or having to take a job in a totally unrelated profession to one's degree is augmented by those who have got where they are on connections, or those who have renounced the idea of a degree altogether and gained their status through work experience. Through poor advice given to them combined in some cases with a lack of proactivity, many graduates languish upon graduation and begin to feel that their hard work has been worthless. 

Initially, Emma Stephens' story seems like a rerun of this plot line at the start of For A Dancer, where she laments having gone to business school only to find that the very market she has been learning about has essentially collapsed by the time of her graduation. Of course we all want someone to blame when something goes wrong in our lives; accepting that we have made bad choices (such as not getting the right work experience, or enough work experience, or have not done enough to seek the right advice or get the highest grades we could) is a very difficult thing to do, after all. The whining tone that starts off this memoir therefore means the writer runs the risk of alienating their audience. Even if readers have gone through similar tribulations themselves, running the "why me?" gamut of emotions can be tiresome to read and unhelpful in real life. However, there is thankfully more to Stephens' memoir than this initially unpromising opening, so readers are encouraged to persevere.

Although part of the highly popular 'misery lit' genre, any gruesome details are left out, meaning that reading For A Dancer does not feel (too) voyeuristic. She is also darkly humorous in several places (although whether this is intentional or not is unclear), making this different to your average misery memoir. This is not to say that the reader never feels sad or frustrated on the writer's behalf: at times when many would give up, she is able to determinedly restore her courage, work hard and carry on in a way that is truly inspiring. Several readers will also recognise aspects of the author in others (or perhaps even in themselves), bringing home the sobering reality of Stephens' childhood and youth.

One cannot help but feel, though, that this autobiography requires some tidying up still, and it is therefore a surprise to find that it is already out in paperback despite linguistic errors such as "affect change" rather than "effect change" and "si vous plait" for "s'il vous plaît". Some parts of the story also feel rather rushed, and the mention of love in the book's blurb is curious given that the writer seems to experience every shade of lust, but rarely, if ever, love. In addition, the 'dancer' connection is far too tenuous and is never carried strongly through the story; while the lyrics of the Jackson Browne song to which it refers are highly relevant to Stephens' tale, this link is at no point handled with dexterity.

As with a lot of self-published work, then, it proves that writing is more difficult than Stephens (and many others) anticipate: you cannot just wordvomit onto a page and call it writing. It needs further crafting and thought than this, and cannot just be treated as yet another in a long line of professions the 'author' wants to try their hand at (Stephens acknowledges in her final chapter, more or less, that she views writing as such, having already attempted careers in medicine, real estate, acting, and others). On the plus side, Stephens is well aware of her flaws (like most of us) and knows that blame for the way her life has turned out is laid at her own door for equally valid reasons for laying blame with others. And, like most, she resolves to make the best of those mistakes, and although writing this memoir as a cathartic exercise is surely part of this process for her, For A Dancer certainly needs further editing and refinement before it is served to more members of the general public.

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