Teaching the genre amidst regular backlash against its existence.

Boast-Epilogue Memoir

Positive energy is the best energy, certainly the most sustainable. But we must admit the opposite is also true. There’s an odd power in negativity. A roomful of happy folks can be cast into quiet doubt by one vehement naysayer. And yet, when negativity goes too far, as Jonathan Yardley appears to do in his review for The Washington Post of Will Boast’s Epilogue: A Memoir, it kindles defiance in turn. Going beyond what he views as Boast’s inadequacy, Yardley unloads on memoir, youth, and the MFA.

He makes me want to read the book. It’s about how Boast, at age 24, is left alone in the world after his father succumbs to alcoholism—his mother and brother having already died—and he discovers that his father had sequestered a wife and two sons, Boast’s half brothers, in England. The memoir comes highly praised for its artistry, and that’s a clue to Yardley’s choler.

At first I assumed his pique was about amateurs, non-literary types getting their messy life stories into print. Then I realized it was allied to that, not not that entirely. Yardley’s broadside in large part reflects the difference between the world of New York trade books and the world of literary academic books. The camps are permeable—as Boast himself shows, winning a New York imprint (Liveright, his publisher, is a division of Norton)—but they’re very different. And Boast has the gall to straddle them: a trade publisher and artsy content.

A year after Yardley’s broadside, it appears to be the proximate cause of two interesting recent columns, Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing Memoir in the New York Review of Books’ series Bookends, where two writers opine on opposite sides of some divide. One is by artistic-but-commercially-successful Leslie Jamison, a red-hot writer for her essay collection The Empathy Exams. She’s also a friend of Boast’s. The other is by Benjamin Moser, who doesn’t attack the genre, either, but tries to place it in distilled historical context. In his somewhat inscrutable essay is this gem:

Every event, and certainly every event worth writing about, will always remain tattooed on our neurons. So it is never too early to start giving those events, which are our lives, a form. It is a homage we pay ourselves. More solid than a memory, a memoir will outlast it, because until a memory is put into words, it remains mist, never shore.

I agree, of course. Everyone’s a critic, but let it be noted: a critic’s first insight isn’t always his best insight. One of the objections that occurs to almost every untutored someone (after “Isn’t creative nonfiction an oxymoron?”) is that almost no one—and certainly no young person—has any business writing memoir. Nonsense. Quite the opposite, actually. Maybe a gifted writer so inclined should publish three right out of the gate. And leave plenty of room for her middle-aged reflections, plus late thoughts into senescence.

That’s obviously not Yardley’s view. And his froth tips the crest of a roiling memoir backlash by lesser literary lights. I stumbled across Kara Brown’s “Delete Your Memoir” recently on Jezebel. It isn’t worth quoting, and the title says it all anyway. No one cares about you and what you want to share. Give up.

In contrast: my student, Amanda

Which raises the question of whether such folk are even close to speaking wisdom. What part of their psyche brings us such snarling? My guess would be the ego, which wants and fears, as Eckhart Tolle succinctly puts it. I’d add, “It’s ego’s desire for attention plus, from our primate substrate, the ugly urge to dominate.” (Brassy-unto-angry folk bypass six million years of kindly, group-mind hominin evolution between us and apes. See Carl Jung on the collective consciousness. Or, back to apes, experience the behavior of most drivers in any big American city.)

I can’t help but think of a girl I taught recently. I’ll call her Amanda, because that was her name. (There were three or four Amandas in my classes last school year—all smart and nice, FYI.) This Amanda was the sweetest kid in the sweetest bunch of freshmen I taught last year in a certain class at Otterbein University. When we workshopped memoirs—yes, I had 18-year-olds writing memoir essays. Repeatedly!—she was riveting to watch. As she spoke to another writer, Amanda seemed to be re-experiencing the writer’s story; with her eyes on the writer, her gaze somehow went inward. She made suggestions, which I required, but this shy girl glowed. An old-soul joy suffused her face.

Soon I learned to watch the faces of the writers she was speaking to. They studied her, guardedly but hungrily, and unguarded emotions swept their faces. They radiated an ephemeral amusement of their own, at Amanda’s unselfconscious pleasure, and a respect for her tender, egoless grace.

Daisy Hickman on memoir’s ‘curious place in literary conversations.’

Daisy Hickman

[Daisy Hickman: wise mind.]

So many memoirs are under way, and so much is being written about memoir. Haters gotta hate, but I find this foment interesting. So many voices, so much passion, so many steps forward into discovery. Into greater wisdom, deeper peace.

At her web site, Sunny Room Studio, my virtual friend Daisy Hickman is a master of life’s and memoir’s spiritual dimension. Her recent blog post “Learning to Write” explains how, in her second memoir that’s well under way, she weaves in apple trees—the three outside her grandmother’s window she loved as a girl; the three, which had been tended by her late son, who died at age 27, that she treasures today. In figuring out how these trees connect, she quotes the late William Zinsser:

Write about small, self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you remember them, it’s because they contain a larger truth that your readers will recognize in their own lives. Think small and you’ll wind up finding the big themes in your family saga.

Daisy explains where reflecting on this advice took her. But she adds this:

Here’s the thing about writing a memoir — it’s extremely challenging. When working in the captivating land of memory, emotions, and time … how could it be otherwise? There is much to write about, yet, paradoxically, there is little to write about. As writers, we have to tease out milestones, memorable dialogue, fading landscapes sketched somewhere in our mind, and then we have to discover the relevance of this — to ourselves, to those who eventually read our books.

Having worked on this memoir for almost seven years, since the publication of her Always Returning: the Wisdom of Place, Daisy has some wise-mind lessons to impart. She’s worth listening to here about memoir and memory, about loss and spiritual gain. So is her newest entry in this series, “Never Orderly,” on breaking the rules of memoir. As Daisy puts it so well, memoir “holds a curious place in literary conversations.”

As someone who himself has struggled to learn the conventions of literary memoir, and to teach them to others, I find her inclination to break its rules exciting. Marveling at Daisy’s journey in these two posts, I happened across an essay at Glimmer Train by Lisa Gornick, who has added memoir writing and teaching to her quiver, alongside fiction and psychotherapy.

Gornick explains:

For the past century, the emblem of the journey into self-discovery has been the psychoanalyst’s couch, but preceding Freud and the consultation room lies a history of personal essayists, leading back to Montaigne in the sixteenth century, who have shone unsparing light on their own thoughts, emotions and desires. Indeed, a person embarking on writing a personal essay and a person embarking on a psychotherapy share many aims: a desire to tell a story, to penetrate the surface to reach a liberating meaning beneath, to feel enlarged by experience such that the tabloid account is transformed into something poetic and mythic. The material, though, needs to be harnessed: both essayist and patient must gain sufficient control over their emotions and automatized ways of thought to step back and reflect, to not succumb to the countervailing forces lobbying for secrecy, subterfuge, the status quo.

Lisa Gornick

[Lisa Gornick: writer, teacher, therapist.]

Gornick offers valuable advice for those who teach memoir-writing to young folk. They are, by definition, changing rapidly and are vulnerable. Amidst the triggering turmoil of emotionally raw work, she has learned to direct students’ attention to the class’s touchstone and backdrop: work by established authors. Added to these, “a clear definition of each person’s responsibilities in the workshop, a consensual code of conduct for giving and receiving feedback, and a rigorous emphasis on the mechanics of writing” keep students transforming their experiences into art. This rigor sets true memoir apart from therapy or journaling, and it’s what kneejerk critics of the genre miss.

I love her criterion for essays and her wisdom here:

Writing a personal essay requires beating back our defenses and looking head-on at our foibles, misconceptions, foolishness and sins. As an analyst, I would say that the personal essay is a perfect storm for personal growth. As a writer, I would say that the personal essay offers an opportunity to shape raw experience into a narrative that clarifies who we once were, who we are now, and who we hope to become.

Amen.

16 Comments

  • Hi, Richard. Sounds like Jonathan Yardley’s just suffering from pencil envy; you know, “there but for the gaits of incapacity go I.”

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Bravo, Richard for your spirited defense of artful memoir writing. I think that what really irks these critics is that rendering one’s life into narrative is such a natural, inborn human inclination and capacity. There is a puritanical streak behind this criticism: writing should be a wholly learned craft wrought from culture and discipline alone. Is not there something quintessentially American about rendering that which wells up naturally from within us into art?

    • Richard says:

      Wow. What an insightful comment, John. Thank you! And in my experience, you are right: as well as wanting to tell their stories and maybe work through something, complete rookies GET the artistic dimension of nonfiction. It seems to take a few orienting comments from me about what it means to make public (vs. journaling), good published examples, and emphasis on form. I tell students writing’s good news/bad news situation: writing talent, I have found, is common; the higher levels of craft are not. But craft is attainable by anyone who wants it.

  • shirleyhs says:

    “. . . until a memory is put into words, it remains mist, never shore.” Lovely. And true.

    From Daisy: “As writers, we have to tease out milestones, memorable dialogue, fading landscapes sketched somewhere in our mind, and then we have to discover the relevance of this — to ourselves, to those who eventually read our books.”

    And Lisa Gornick “I would say that the personal essay offers an opportunity to shape raw experience into a narrative that clarifies who we once were, who we are now, and who we hope to become.”

    A lot of the knee-jerk criticism is a combination of envy and guile. Envy because other writers sell books or get critical applause younger than the critic did. Guile because you can always get into print with a “man bites dog” story.

    Excellent post for anyone who teaches memoir!

  • Hi Richard, enjoyed the advice from Gornick, and this phrase: “… it’s what knee jerk critics of the genre miss.” Clearly, the critics miss a great deal — knowingly, or unknowingly. So authors must trust their inner wisdom instead. “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.” ― William Faulkner, Essays, Speeches & Public Letters

    And thank you again for sharing a few of my thoughts here with the link to SunnyRoomStudio. Tough week, and this was a bit of sunlight.

  • cat5evie says:

    As usual, Richard, I wound up scratching out a page of notes. Your posts are not (high compliment alert) “quick bites.”

    A sentence in your first paragraph flashed lights in my reptilian brain and set me off for pages. Best writing prompt ever. It was this: “There is an odd power in negativity.” Odd maybe, but undeniable.

    The Benjamin Moser quote affirming the worth of writing our memories is another keeper for my inspiration journal.

    Your phrase “late thoughts into senescence” not only sent me to the dictionary to be certain I understood the meaning, but caused me to reflect on my own stage of writing. (Maybe because June is my birthday month and I’ve begun to hum “Will you still need me, will you still feed me . . . .”)

    Your compassion toward your students is lovely to observe. I don’t have students, but I do have a bevy of twenty-something step-granddaughters and your description of young folk as “changing rapidly, and vulnerable” strikes home. They are much on my mind, and I wonder if I had been reduced to using Timbr to find a date or a mate whether I might still be living single. (Did you see Aziz Ansari’s wonderful, clever essay in Time, “Everything You Thought You Knew About Love Is Wrong?” http://time.com/aziz-ansari-modern-romance/)

    And thanks for the great links. I’m looking forward to exploring Daisy Hickman’s writing, among others.

    Beth

  • Janice Gary says:

    Richard, this is so, so good. I always want to write a reply to people like Yardley (a memoir hater from way back), but I get angry and upset and can’t find the distance to calmly lay it out like you do. So much good stuff in here. Thanks!!!

    • Richard says:

      My pleasure, Jan—thank you for reading and commenting. If had taken Yardley head on, I’d have collapsed, too. Thank goodness for such a surge of wisdom from others to draw upon.

  • Enjoyed reading the article. Uplifting!

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