Teaching the genre amidst regular backlash against its existence.
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.’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 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.
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.
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.