Saturday, October 17, 2015

Memoir, Part I

I teach a class called Introduction to Memoir at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy NY. The class being about memoir, about the personal, the private, and the interior, I learn a lot about my students. I’m sure they learn about me too, even if I don’t use my own attempts at memoir writing as an example for them. In spite of this process of coming to know one another, I have been keeping one big secret from them: I AM NOT ENTIRELY SURE I KNOW WHAT MEMOIR IS.

Oh, I have some idea, but not a crystal clear one, like I think a teacher should. I can expound on the what, how and why of the memoir as literary genre, but if you asked me to give a definition that included all that is memoir, and excluded all that is not, I would not be able to do it. And I have a bone to pick with the ways that some people have defined it in the past. So my class is not so much a top-down lecture about the form, but an exploration undertaken as a kind of corporate venture to a New World of Truth, however provisional and contingent that truth turns out to be.

So let’s go with the ‘what’ of memoir first. It is not fiction, not history, but it appropriates approaches from both of those genres. It finds truth in what actually happened to a person, however fictional it may be in terms to being a selective and interpretive enterprise. It tries to find universal, general, abstract human truth in the particular and concrete experiences of a single person. In that sense, it is didactic. Hopefully, it is also entertaining. In fact, I think you can justify memoir on the basis of its mere entertainment value. I don’t read truly engaging stuff often enough. Funny and articulate and surprising will do for me.

My mentor, Marion Roach Smith, who teaches the more advanced course at the ACCR (and who authored the wonderful book about the craft of memoir called THE MEMOIR PROJECT: A THOROUGHLY NON-STANDARDIZED TEXT FOR WRITING AND LIFE) feels that memoir should tell a story with some of the standard elements of fiction: conflict, resolution, change, epiphany, transcendence. I don’t think all memoirs do this, and I know the one I am working on does not (at least not yet, but I am hoping perhaps the writing itself may somehow bring me the insight and change that I seek).

I think of a great memoir by Joe Queenan called CLOSING TIME, wherein he describes growing up poor with an alcoholic abusive father and a manic depressive mother. There is little to be learned, except perhaps the desperate nature of poverty, and that if you are a very bright and lucky poor kid, it might help you to read a lot of books (which he calls the siege weapons the poor use to breach the walls of the middle class). Queenan is the same wiseacre as a kid as he is as an adult. No transcendence. He does learn that the priesthood is not for him, and that suffering is more often dehumanizing than ennobling, but there is no great conflict or confusion, no journey of discovery, no triumphs, just a life so skillfully drawn, a life so desperate and yet so funny, that it is my favorite in the genre.

And besides, there is change of a sort. Sometimes the change comes in the reader and not the writer, when expectations are frustrated. I expected Queenan to make some pronouncements about poverty, about how he learned to overcome it, and about perhaps how society can eliminate it, but he doesn’t set his sights that high. He is content to tell us that he has no answers, that he was lucky to get out, and that the poor will always be with us. That is still a lesson, though implied.

I think of Chekhov as Queenan’s analogue in fiction. Think of his short story THE KISS. Officer Ryabovitch obsesses over a woman who accidentally kissed him at a ball and then disappeared, and we think that the story will end one of two ways—he will find her and be turned down, or find her and be united with her (or maybe find her and lose her, and win her and wish he hadn’t). We never suspect that all the obsessing will come to nothing, that he will never try to find her, that he will allow his life to be lived without any of it being resolved. And so we are changed, because our expectation was thwarted, and we are forced to face the idea that in real life a lot of things don’t get resolved.

I tell my students honestly that in the memoir that I am writing, there is no resolution. At least not yet. Maybe there will be in time, if I find some way to make peace with my childhood, my life, of depression, OCD and anxiety. But I haven’t done it yet. This makes me wonder if the resolution in a lot of memoirs is forced. Maybe some of these people write in their journals and diaries with an eye towards a coherent story about their lives, but my old diaries and journals, which weren’t, don’t read that way. And the whole thing begs the question—How can I say that any version of my life is true if my own understanding of it is so fragile and malleable? If I write it pre-transcendence it is a much different memoir than if I don’t.

This makes me think of what Augustine’s CONFESSIONS would have been like if he was still enjoying the good life, placing body above soul, and generally having some fun when he wrote it. Less of a drag, I am sure.

Of course, he needs to strive towards the divine because he is writing less with an eye towards truth and more because he is propagandizing (another thing that calls into question how true any memoir can be). Augustine is using his life as an exemplum with which to win recruits to his version and vision of Christianity, his story of coming to God being the vehicle, just as Ben Franklin was consciously using himself as an example of America in The Autobiography of Ben Franklin (breaking from his brother and finding success in the same way the country breaks from England and through brains and hard work and a certain kind of godliness and purity finds success too). Shit, even George Bush, in DECISION POINTS, has an epiphany (God tells him to stop taking coke and stop screwing up one business after another and go screw up the entire county instead), as does Hitler in MEIN KAMPF, wherein he suddenly sees the truth about the Aryans and the Jews and his role as the one chosen to redeem the former and eliminate the latter.

So I find it hard to come by epiphany, and am suspicious of it as being a pernicious thing, and I don’t know if my life is an example of anything. If it is not, I don’t want to phony it up by writing it like it is.

Next week, more on the ‘what’ of memoir.

© 2015 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. My take on a memoir is that it is as varied as a human life. There is no resolution - as some people change radically at the end, even in the hour of death. A memoir can give a partial history of a person, insight into an individual human, but it is never total or complete - for a person is not only what he'she sees as the whole person, but what others also see, often a very different picture from that of the subject. Thelma Straw