Last week when Claire Dederer, author of the new memoir Poser, was the guest speaker in my Writing the Memoir class at UW, she articulated something about memoir that I believe should be taught in elementary
schools where tomorrow’s memoir writers are quietly gaining on us. “Thinking the event is the story is the biggest mistake of student writers,” she said. “The transformation of the self is the story.”
As I hurried to scribble this down, two things scrolled across my thoughts: the majesty of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and The Story and the latest New York Times piece in the paper’s continuing effort to eradicate memoir as a literary form.
First, let’s talk about Gornick. In the slim but mighty tome The Situation and The Story, Gornick articulates beautifully that the plot is not the story in personal narrative. The story is the magic the writer creates out of the events–an alchemy of insight, metaphor and voice that lends the events meaning. In fact, here’s what she said, “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context of circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.”
The emotional experience that preoccupies the writer–yes, exactly. And, that’s why–as Dederer pointed out–it’s not the EVENTS that the memoir writer should count on to spin their story into something of value. And that brings me to the New York Times article.
A few months ago on a Sunday afternoon, I got a flurry of emails from my memoir writing students: Have you seen this? they asked. I could almost see their ashen faces as I read the article attached titled ominously, “The Problem with Memoirs.” One of my emailers wrote: “I just pictured a million writers shutting down their laptops simultaneously—” The Times piece –and it’s by no means an isolated one–was all about how we don’t need any more of these crappy memoirs that are clogging the bookstore shelves.
When I read it, I was instantly of two minds: The first: “Forget” you, Snotty and Smug reviewer of books who has never dared to enter into the sweaty arena of writing about one’s own experience. The second: Yes, I think you might be right. There IS a type of memoir I want to say we don’t need more of, but maybe I’ll just say I don’t need more of. For me, it’s the type of memoir that Rachel Klayman, the editor of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, once called, “a forced march through the writer’s life.”
“A forced march through the writer’s life” is another way of saying that the writer has mistaken the events for the story. Obviously, this is easiest to do when the events of a story are dramatic. It’s easy, say, to believe that a childhood with all sorts of trauma or a journey to alcoholism’s bottom and back are in
themselves worthy of memoir. Mary Karr is a writer who has written about both, and while her life has been filled with events that may make it seem “memoir worthy,” her literary strength is in her rendering and not in her story’s sensational events. (V.S. Pritchett once said of personal narrative: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”)
Karr articulated succinctly the trouble with the memoir that offers only “a forced march” in a recent interview with Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on the terrific radio show Writers on Writing. She talked about the heaps of memoirs that are, she believes, all the same—reportage of the repetition of abuse. “I call them ‘Sound Bite Memoirs,’ Karr says. “‘I was a teenage sex slave’…They are one note stories. They have one note. They show one aspect of one person. And they’re usually kind of repetitive. You find out what the problem is in the beginning and it’s the same problem kind of reiterated. My mother hit me on the head with a brick on Monday and then I was a sophomore in high school and my mother hit me on the head with a brick and then I was a junior and she hit me on the head with a brick. Then I got some car keys and I left and I’m better now.” But the real story, Karr insists, is the one that most writers still aren’t telling. “The problem isn’t that your mother hit you on the head with a brick,” Karr says. “The problem is that you still love her, that you depend on her.”
I love that line: “The problem is that you still love her, that you depend on her.” Which takes me back to Dederer and her insight that “the transformation of the self is the story.” And for me, this transformation of the self story is the type of memoir I want more of, and it tends to come in two forms: memoirs that take a quiet situation like Poser’s (a new mother pursues yoga) and render it into a story that speaks volumes about something larger than the narrator (in Poser‘s case: the women’s movement, the impact of divorce, the state of motherhood) and memoirs in which the narrator goes to the mat with the fact that no matter how many times his mother hit him on the head with a brick, he still loves her.
I think the thing that is most irritating to me regarding the negative attitude towards memoirs is that many, many, most, if not all, “fiction” writers borrow HEAVILY from real life. They use their friends, their family, their coworkers, their own experiences, things people say, etc. Do you really think now, REALLY THINK, that most fiction writers make up characters and situations out of whole cloth? They do not.
But the memoir writer has the BALLS to say, “This is me. This happened to me.” He/she has the cojones to take the heat that follows. To deal with the people saying, “Boy, that was a stupid decision. Hey, you sounded really pathetic there.”
The fiction writer gets to hide behind a veil and say, “Oh, I made that up.” Not the non-fiction writer.
It’s not so much about being self-obsessed and absorbed as it being honest, and saying, “Yep, this was me!”
This is exactly what I needed to read today! Thanks!
Great Post Theo! And so true, just as you always taught us. “Look for the transformation in your character.” Another piece of advice I got was from Maria Housden who wrote “Hanna’s Gift.” She told me, you have to find the “universal truth” in your story, meaning you have to find that theme within the events of your story that speaks to all, and not just you. I think many memoirs today are missing that universal truth.
Great post, Theo. Mary Karr’s insight nailed it.
I love memoir b/c it is the bravest genre of writing I know — both in the act of writing it and the act of reading it. Yes, it’s the writer who is baring it all on the page. But it also takes courage as a reader not to look away, to instead make the same journey into their own lives.
That’s interesting, Eve. I hadn’t thought of the memoir reader as having courage, but yes, that sounds right.
Here via Cheryl Strayed’s FB link. This neatly sums up some of my issues with (some) modern memoir. I’m reading Black Boy right now, and it’s amazing–and I’ve read other wonderful memoirs, obviously. But there are bad memoirs published, just as there are bad novels and terrible, dead-boring works of nonfiction. The good ones are brave and artful and reflective–across the board.
Thanks for reading, Karen. And thanks to Cheryl Strayed for sending you this way–can’t wait to read Cheryl’s upcoming memoir WILD due out in 2012. I saw an editor at Knopf tweet yesterday that WILD is something of an anti-Eat, Pray, Love, which just made me all the more eager to get my paws on it.
as another commenter wrote, the timing of this couldn’t have been more perfect. thank you so much, theo, for the post. and for reminding me to pull out vivian gornick’s book and giving it another read. another SERIOUS read. thank you thank you.
It’s horrifying — if you have a shred of humility or self-awareness — to even attempt memoir. Mine is out tomorrow, (and Barbara has me skedded for her show on May 11) and I can assure you that it made me feel quite ill to peel back the safely anonymous objective viewpoint of the journalist I have been for 30 years to write, honestly, about my own personal perceptions and feelings — even as (which the book is also about) they relate to others. I had to expose myself to judgment and it is a very unpleasant feeling to have your character mistaken for your writing skills; in memoir, they are suddenly one and the same, even if they are really not.
The second you expose yourself (and you must) in a memoir, you — not your *writing* — become subject to some unkind judgments (hello, Gilbert, flayed for being white/privileged, etc) about YOU and your behavioral choices, and not the merits of your book. Every memoir, is de facto, a selected set of facts and stories about you. It is not wholly about you.
My book, like Nickeled and Dimed, (to which one critic compares it), is also a much wider look at low-wage labor, and the memoir was my framing device. I did not think, ever, that I personally was so deeply fascinating. But memoir is what it is and you give it your best. You are acutely aware of becoming a character within it, one you hope readers find sufficiently sympathetic or interesting to listen to and follow through a larger story.
I found working within this genre daunting!
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Dang, girl. I am blown away. And you need to HuffPo this. *genuflects*
Thanks, Ms. Candace. It’s due to go up on the Huffpo Books page any minute now.
Thank you for this. I needed it.
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Reblogged this on Whose Extraordinary Life are you Living? and commented:
I love how Theo draws a distinction between plot and the transformation of the self as focus… the obsession that she/he is preoccupied with. THAT is the story. Not what happens but how Narrator A changes to Narrator B.