Last week when Claire Dederer, author of the new memoir Poser, was the guest speaker in my Writing the Memoir class at the University of Washington, 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 of memoir," Dederer 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 memoir writers 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.
As I read the review, I was instantly of two minds: The first: "Forget" you, Mr. Snotty and Smug Reviewer of Books who has probably never dared to enter into the sweaty arena of writing about one's own experience. The second: Yes, actually 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" 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 the writer's life 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 through the writer's life" 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.
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