Saturday, November 7, 2015
Memoir, Part 4
I think you need to be well read in memoir in order to write one. This doesn’t mean you need to read every memoir ever written, but you do need to know what the masters of the genre have done with it, to get a feel for all the possibilities, to see what styles and techniques resonate with you. I loved THIS BOY’S LIFE (Tobias Wolfe) and CLOSING TIME (Joe Queenan) because the narrators of both had a lot of snark and bark to them, and because they weren’t afraid to portray their parents naked, with all the warts and carbuncles and pustules in evidence (not that they cut themselves much slack either, and they were looking more for truth, I think, than revenge), and because they somehow managed to come out of childhood without exploding into a million confused and frustrated pieces, even emerging into adulthood with a certain degree of wisdom and compassion. Even if they are only telling their version of their lives, and we decide to question it, they have revealed themselves to us merely by the writerly choices they have made. This is one of the great ironies of memoir—it tells us more about the writer than those he or she writes about, and it often does so obliquely, through the choice of scene and structure and even at the atomic, or word, level.
Structure is the toughest nut for me to crack. I think of all the ways you might structure any kind of book. Start with the crime novel. Usually, we start after the murder has been committed. The detective works forward in time, but what he discovers is not chronological. He might discover what happened to the victim last first, for example. In this way, the writer keeps the tension ratcheted up; as if the protagonist is putting together a puzzle and we are on waiting on pins and needles trying to force ourselves to see the pattern, the whole, emerge from all those disjointed pieces.
But can you write a memoir that way? Doesn’t the reader already know whether you survived the illness, quit the addiction, etc? Yes, for the most part. And most memoirs are about hope and light, so we don’t expect the writer to, for example, try to reconcile with his parents and not be able to. Who would read a memoir wherein the writer was more messed up and unhappy at the end than at the beginning? Then again, you don’t usually read a crime novel where the crime is not solved.
There can still be narrative suspense in memoir. Try starting at the very beginning, with a child with all the odds stacked against him or her, and then flash forward to the end, wherein that child has become a relatively happy (or at least content, which I think is a more realistic hope) adult. Then the reader asks “how the hell did that kid ever make it?” I was watching an old HBO Series called The Wire last night. In it, some drug gangsters break into a five year-old’s house and kill his parents right in front of him. The cop says to her partner about the little boy—“how do you come back from that?” Good question, and a good memoir, if it can be written well.
I still think plot needs to be present in order for a book to be good. Calvin Trillin jokes about going to memoir writing camp and breaking down and admitting he made it all up, and had a happy childhood. But even a happy life has interesting things and important things that happened in it, and I just don’t think someone who writes with pellucid prose about pretty much nothing can ever be interesting. At least not to me. Proust did write about eating those stupid cookies, but he ended up writing about a lot more.
We, most of us, are not rock stars or movie stars, not rich or politicians (or rich politicians—sometimes it seems like all of the above fall rightly together under the rubric celebrity or public figure). We will read the mundane details of a famous person’s life in an almost superstitious, totemic way, as if we could become them if we shopped at the same stores and went to the same same church and espoused the same philosophies, from trickle-down economics to Scientology.
But the rest of us must do more than merely give an outline of what has happened to us, the old vertebra without the spine I talked about earlier, in order to interest the reader in our story. And it is not just what you tell the reader, but how you tell it. You need suspense, you need to link things in a way that makes it clear what you think the causes and effects of your experiences were (even if you don’t explicitly state them), you must not tell the punch line of the joke first. You must emphasize and de-emphasize things in ways that focuses the reader’s attention in the way you want it to be directed. This is structure.
What are some of the structures of really good memoir? We’ve already talked about how Augustine and Franklin structure their experiences to portray themselves as quintessentially Christian and quintessentially American. Dave Eggers, in A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, puts structure itself on trial by playing on your expectations of what he will do with it. Carolyn Knapp, in DRINKING, A LOVE STORY (great title) structures the book around the idea that her drinking is like a bad boyfriend, one that she knows she needs to leave but can’t. And she keeps this focus throughout, through all her experiences, the experiences any woman would have growing up, always drinking, not able to stop, and those experiences becoming warped because of that-- the bad boyfriend keeping her isolated from friends and family and ultimately even from herself.
This is a structure that works, I think, because the metaphor for the bad boyfriend is a natural one, an organic one, an apt one. Other memoirs suffer from a structure that is more of a gimmick than a mimesis of a life. Think of those books wherein someone sets out to do something outlandish, to read the OED or to walk around the world, or some other nutty thing. These activities are not organic, but are imposed on a life. They are not something the person would otherwise have done if they weren’t planning to write a book. The literary enterprise is not a description of life, but the life itself. These don’t generally work, at least not as memoir. A J Jacobs’s THE KNOW IT ALL—ONE MAN’S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD, for example, in which he tries to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, is funny, but not a memoir. And the gimmick, the book being a kind of one trick pony, gets pretty thin by the end.
Then there are authors like David Sedaris and James Thurber. These guys are hilarious, but there characters are so distorted for effect that I don’t think you can call them memoirists. They are humorists. These characters are equivalent to those writing them approximately in the way that Alvy Singer is equivalent to Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL. Calvin Trillin, on the other hand, while self-mocking, creates a much more three dimensional character of himself.
Trillin is interesting in another sense. To me, two of his books, while ostensibly biographies of an old school friend and of his wife, REMEMBERING DENNY, and ABOUT ALICE, are also memoir. In the tradition of the New School, he is a journalist who does put himself in the story. And his reactions to the people he writes about tell us as much about him as they do about them.
Show, don’t tell. This is something that gets said in my class ten times a session. When I think about it, it means two different things. One has to do with the balance between scene and summary, dramatization and documentation. If I tell you my brother and I had an awful fight that ruined our relationship, I am documenting. I need to show the fight and our reactions to it, show the thing in the context of both our lives, for it to have any meaning. And if I explicitly say it ruined our relationship, I condescend to the reader, not letting him of her make up their own minds. But I do have an objection to this dictum, and that is this—when the writer’s conclusion about what the events mean is startling or new, he or she should tell us how he thinks and feels about it all.
And it must be remembered that summary implies scene and vice versa—it is always a mixture of the two we are dealing with. I can say “those ten years were hard, lots of times I was broke, and it was always cold, it seemed, and I was hungry.” This is the barest summary of many scenes, but we still see it as somehow as a scene. On the other end of the spectrum, you can take a moment’s reaction and unpack it for thirty pages. The decision on how to balance the two has to do with pacing, and this is another thing about writing that is both partly teachable and partly instinctive.
© Mike Welch 2015