If I am not sure I know what memoir is, I am also not sure if I think one with real transcendence and resolution and truth can be written. Didn’t the Greeks say that you can’t say a man is happy until he is dead? (You can’t know what the story is about until it is over). Then there is the problem of writing as propaganda, and writing as self-glorification, and also the problem of self-knowledge. Is anyone really capable of it? Even when we try to make a clean breast of things, don’t we, as Freud told us, always plead guilty to a lesser offense? And can’t even openness be used as a method of concealment?
And yet I keep thinking about the memoirs that I have read that smack of true insight. They are literary and psychological marvels. Maybe we are all forever in the process of writing our own story, even if we don’t write it down. Marion is right, at least in some cases: memoir can be a portal to self-discovery and it can reassure the disaffected and disenfranchised they are not alone.
The main lesson in my failed attempts at writing my own memoir, if there is one, is to not lose your nerve, to not give up (which I have not done yet). Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, talks about how long and labor intensive was her attempt to write her latest memoir, LIT: “I threw out over 1200 pages of my last memoir and broke my delete key changing my mind.” She talks about how long it took her to finally decide what all three of her memoirs were about, to find her true voice, which whispered to her while her idea of what a writer should sound like shouted. Karr finally found transcendence and change and a way to structure it all so that it made sense to the reader. Often, she felt at sea, and both the structure and her voice emerged from her subconscious so slowly that she didn’t notice she had figured them out until she suddenly noticed her writing had, seemingly by magic, acquired them, the way some people will struggle with a language that special moment when it seems suddenly they have been granted the gifts of both understanding and speech.
Karr does not try to vanquish doubt, but courts it as the acid test of the validity of her work. So I take heart. 50 or 75 or 100 rewrites and maybe my doubt that my emotionally Gothic childhood did not mean something, and I have not changed, will itself change.
From another vantage point, doubt can be the greatest enemy. My doubt that I deserve to tell a story about myself where I am not the loser or the villain is very strong. This is the way my parents and my depression taught me to think about myself, and so in a way speaking truthfully about it all is a monumentally disobedient act. I contradict Mom and Dad and my faulty brain chemistry all at once if I do so.
A lot of people in memoir class have trouble with this aspect of writing, their doubt and fear of their own vision, of their version of their own life. They feel others have more of a right to tell their story than they do themselves. This worry about getting it wrong is even stronger than the fear that people will be angry, litigious or hurt by what you have said. People often seem to be looking for permission to claim their own version, but I avoid granting it like the plague. It is not a decision anyone else can make for you, any more than I would tell you to go and tell your family everything you have been holding in lo all these many years.
Kathryn Harrison, in THE KISS: A MEMOIR, writes about how her father victimized her by luring her into an incestuous affair. Some people excoriated her for being the perpetrator and not the victim, and others for not keeping it all a secret. But she had the courage to speak her story which, at some basic level, is the courage to be who you really are, who you know you are, regardless of what other people need you to be.
Not that the tendency for everyone to paint themselves as a victim is necessarily good. Sometimes I think we are creating a society where status comes from how abused you are. A rush to the bottom is a rush to the top. But there are true victims, and truth in their stories. I think my real complaint is with those memoirists who seek refuge in the status of victim, instead of striving to re-take control of their lives. Should everyone be allowed to see themselves as victim? I think of THE SOPRANOS, wherein Tony goes to see Dr Melfi. He is rewriting his life in such a way that he gets to erase all the horror he has caused. Yes, he has been a victim, but also a victimizer. Which brings us back to doubt and honesty, the cornerstones of a good memoir. Yes, my childhood was emotionally Dickensian, pathetic, Gothic, with my mother fluctuating wildly between rage and disinterest, and my father’s bi-polar illness lending an absurdist quality to the whole thing, but I have to admit that for a time (just a time?) I became a self-absorbed, self-pitying jerk, an emotional abuser, a fist fighter ,a drunk, and what would be called a slut if I was a woman (which , contrary to popular belief, is not necessarily a happy condition for a man to be in).
Sometimes, as with the dueling banjos in DELIVERANCE, our stories of ourselves compete with those of others. For all of us, we are first defined, and our narrative begun, by our parents. They tell us who they are. So does the cultural context we come up in. Hence memoirs like Black Elk Speaks, The Hunger of Memory (Richard Rodriguez), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou), The Woman Warrior (Maxine Hong Kingston) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, among others. For some of these writers, they are authoring themselves for the first time, an act of great personal and political courage.
In my family, my narrative role was both as loser and sinner—to Dad an all purpose dope, schlemiel, schlimazel, a craven coward, and to Mom a ne’er do well, an amoral, selfish narcissist with an eye only on the main chance, a sinner, malefactor, miscreant, and general all around bad actor. For a long time I took it for granted that all these things were true. My sense of irony was not yet developed enough to see that the pot was calling the kettle black. It was only in reinventing my role in therapy (there is a specific school called Narrative Psychology dealing with this) that I got some traction in my attempts to pull myself out of the narrative quicksand I was in.
People who confuse therapy and memoir also confuse criticism of their writing with criticism of their very selves. I try to be very careful to clearly make a distinction between the two.
Memoir can be a healthy endeavor, then (although it is also a refuge for propagandists and self deluded narcissists). Sometimes you need to overcome guilt and confusion in order to write one. Some memoirs seem to think that you can elevate yourself at the expense of others. This kind of zero-sum game thinking does not often make a good memoir. Karr, in Liar’s Club, does portray her parents warts and all, but she does the same to herself. And in the end, she finds a way to bless them, and herself, with acceptance and compassion. It is something I have not found the ability to do yet.
It is important to understand that memoir that is greatly therapeutic is not necessarily great memoir. And great memoir is not necessarily memoir that will sell, what with the publishing industry’s conviction that the sensational is more attractive than the thoughtful, the lurid more compelling than the nuanced, the memoir that shouts simple platitudes more worthy than one that whispers about complexity and nuance. Also, what is valued in memoir goes in and out of fashion the way skinny and fat ties for men do.
Not everyone writes with depth, insight and voice. But everyone can learn to write memoir, and like any other skill from shooting a basketball to singing opera, practice will make you better, if not necessarily world class.
It is comforting to know we are not alone, and fiction and memoir are one of the few places we get access to the secret lives of others. And yet we are fascinated too with those who, besides that bedrock humanity, are different. We are taken with the offbeat and the off putting, the odd, the eccentric, the outed and the outré.
It’s a rush, this access—when I read MENNONITE IN A LITTLE BLACK DRESS, by Rhoda Janzen, I found her experience about as far removed from mine as one’s could possibly be—that of a Mennonite woman growing up in a culture she often felt at odds with, both as a woman and as a Mennonite. What do I know of the secret lives of Mennonites (besides the underwear)? Or the secret lives of any kind of woman, for that matter. Janzen rebels, and I can relate to rebellion, but she finds love and acceptance in her heart for the very people who made her life so hard. The dress and religion and family were way too tight a fit for her, but she made alterations and kept all three. She entertains and there is some instruction cleverly mixed in (like you mix medicine in with your dog’s food). If my students can do these two very deceptively difficult things, I count them successful. I try to hold myself to the same standard.
© 2015 Mike Welch