Content Tagged ‘Leslie Jamison’

Memoir or personal essay?

July 1, 2015 | 10 Comments

Q&A: Monica Wood

June 17, 2015 | 9 Comments

I asked fiction writer and memoirist Monica Wood to discuss memoir’s “for the people” aspect—the personal benefits of examining one’s life in written story—in relation to memoir as literature. Some critics seem to get irate when people they view as amateur, non-literary types publish their stories. For example, last year in the Washington Post Jonathan Yardley unloaded an anti-youth, anti-memoir, anti-MFA screed in a review of 34-year-old Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue. The issue won’t die. Recently there were columns by Leslie Jamison and Benjamin Moser in the New York Times Book Review on “Should There be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?”

Wood, the author of When We Were the Kennedys: A Memoir from Mexico, Maine, said “I think you’re making the distinction between writing that serves as catharsis for the writer alone, and writing that aspires to speak to the human condition universally. Catharsis is a perfectly valid reason for writing, and I recommend it. But there’s a difference between writing a book and publishing a book. Although the Yardley screed seems awfully mean, I know what he’s getting at. I haven’t read the memoir in question, so I offer no opinion on Epilogue, but I have read a few memoirs by both young and older writers that make too little effort to look OUTWARD.”

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Memoir pro & con

June 5, 2015 | 16 Comments

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 wasn’t that, not not 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.

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Three fine online essays

July 30, 2014 | 10 Comments

The blogsite Writers for Dinner offers Eunice Tiptree’s artful micro essay “The Boy and the Corn Stalk”—only 653 words—which is a boyhood story that flashes forward to an adulthood realization. I adore it. This essay, employing an unusual third-person point of view, possesses the strangeness of art.

Here’s the Gertrude Stein-ish sing-song once-upon-a-time opening:

“Once there was a little boy, just one little boy even though this was the late 1950s and there were lots of little boys and little girls too. There were lots, but this little boy lived far away from them in a place he though the center of the world, a place of fields filled with rows of shrubs, a nursery filled with plants with Latin names. This was the 1950s and the little boy loved to sit on his daddy’s lap in the big chair as his father napped on Sunday afternoons, the only time the work paused.”

A mythic tone suffuses “The Boy and the Cornstalk,” which is haunting—yet it’s a commonplace story of childhood. It concentrates childhood. Which makes the simple story, one about an apparently trivial early loss, poignant. Tiptree accomplishes so much with implication. Then she makes a huge leap forward in time to the character’s adult insight—also commonplace on the surface yet rare in portraying a resonant inner moment. I think this realization packs a punch because yet again she captures something deeply personal that’s at the same time a universal experience.

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