Saturday, November 14, 2015
The Case Against Memoir
Writing a memoir requires a cast of mind that can make you more concerned with observing your life than living it. Of course, even fiction writers can become more interested in how their experiences will become part of their work than they are in having the experiences themselves. A kind of double consciousness then develops, and you are less focused on the girl smiling at you across the room than with how, or if, you can fit her into Part 1, and if she should go before or after Chapter 2. Of course, some people (neurotics and those with anxiety disorders come to mind) live life with that kind of painful self-consciousness anyway, and perhaps writing is a reward, or a relief valve, for that continual reflexive reflection.
And what of spending all your time looking back at your life? My Dad used to only scrape the ice of the front windshield on cold days before he went to work, and I would try to reprimand him for it. His invariable response was that he was not going to drive to work in reverse.
Still, the backwards looking tendency smacks of the self-consciousness mentioned above. And shouldn’t you be looking forward in life at least until everything gets boring at 40? My nephew, when he was four or five, used to talk with the world weariness of an old salt about “when I was little.” I tell him this and he laughs, and doesn’t use that phrase around me anymore, although I know that at 17 he looks back at 7 as if across an abyss of history so wide he could never successfully cross it, even in his mind. And I am glad he doesn’t want to. Don’t write your life yet, little guy (OK, 6 foot and 185 pounds now, but still my little guy), live it while you can.
Memoirs can be mere lurid exhibitions, tawdry and obscene pandering. Think of the “CHILD CALLED IT” series, which I tried to read but felt like I was hanging around a particularly gruesome highway accident scene. Such a non-stop depiction of abuse comes off as a celebration of the very abuse it purports to be crusading against, and reading it make me feel like a minister crusading against pornography by collecting all the dirty magazines he was going to shut down.
I also don’t like memoirs that are therapy, rants of rage and shame, attempts at revenge, that come off as shrill, with the authors naked in their pain, animals caught in a trap we never see them escape, becoming objects of pity instead of pathos.
William Gass, in THE ART OF SELF: AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN THE AGE OF NARCISSISM (Harper’s , May ’94), talks about how both fiction and history turned inward and psychological in what he calls the Age of the Novel. We became concerned more than with merely what men did, but what they felt, their motives, their feelings. Gass sees this as a bad thing, although his writing is so elliptical and dense it was hard for me to figure out exactly why. It seemed he is saying that what famous men do is more important than what ordinary men feel. He says: “History became a comic book, and autobiography the confessions of celluloid whores.”
Memoir is all the rage in writing workshops now, and that is fine if you love to write and want to explore your ability to do so. But don’t quit your day job, and don’t expect it to repair your relationships. I don’ t think they have the power to do that. If there was going to be some sticky-sweet scene of reconciliation it probably would have happened already, so don’t launch the book with that as a goal. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, talks of how she vetted everything she wrote with her mother and sister as she was writing THE LIAR’S CLUB, and the process not only didn’t drive them all apart, it brought them closer together. Still, for the most part, if memoir has any power at all, it is to heal the wounds left by the relationships, but not the relationships themselves.
In terms of therapy, once again, I think it is important to see the difference between reflection and rumination. Going back to the past to understand it, maybe to overcome it, or at least put it away, is different from going back again and again to re-experience shame and fear and anger. When Freud talked of catharsis, he didn’t mean that you were supposed to trigger those feelings over and over again until you had beaten them out of yourself, but to change your perspective, your vantage point, your relationship to what happened. Maybe that is what memoir ideally does for the writer and, vicariously, for the reader.
Gass goes on to say that “an honest autobiography is as amazing a miracle as a doubled sex [a hermaphrodite] and every bit as much a freak of nature.” Even if Gass is right, and true self-knowledge is not possible, the attempt to acquire what knowledge we can is not a wasted effort. More self knowledge is better than less, makes you more able to navigate the social world successfully, keeps you from being an asshole, maybe, even if you can never achieve complete self-awareness. Writing anything is like living itself—doomed to failure and death. That doesn’t mean you don’t take a whack at it while you have the chance.
© Mike Welch 2015