Recently I engaged in an intense back and forth on She Writes on memoir writing. I stated in a subsequent post on the thread that I thought perhaps young memoirists–under fifty is young to me- might not have the perspective on their lives to be writing memoir. It was just a speculation at the time, but it raised a lot of hackles.
Young memoirists said in the thread that their purpose is “to heal.” In a sense then, if we are writing to heal and then trying to sell the book, aren’t we writing a self-help book? Food for thought.
I recently wrote “The Permissions of Memoir” here as I considered the issue of truth in memoir, which also happens to be a big popular topic on She Writes at the moment, in the Memoir group– which BTW, includes over 500 women! All that truth-telling, not unlike a menstrual gush (sorry…couldn’t resist). All of these young writers having heavy periods. Now, menopausal crone that I am, I find myself reversing myself to some extent.
Truth is not static. What you hold true when you are thirty-five is not what you hold true when you are sixty. You haven’t done enough living and thinking or mastered your craft to the degree necessary to write a brilliant memoir that will outlast you. You just haven’t, and you shouldn’t do it just because your story is sensational and can make you some quick money.
Nor should you write about recent events.
In the past three years the following things have happened to me that I should not write about at any length, if at all right now, because I’m too close to them;
-I’ve endured around ten alcoholic relapses and have now been alcohol-free for six months, thank God. Once upon a dream I had sixteen years without a drink.
-I had to take a plea to something I didn’t do to avoid a trial and the God in my life for the next few years is a probation officer I can’t stand.
-I lost a mare and foal in a terrible series of events taking place before my very eyes. I loved my mare; she was the only maternal presence in my life.
-Shortly thereafter the saddle slipped from a horse I was dismounting, I ripped my right leg out of the stirrup and it fractured.
-I spent six months in a nursing home, while my surgeon refused to respond to me when I looked at the x-rays with him and said that the leg appeared to be going out of alignment.
-In July of 09 I was told that the leg had healed, but that had deformed to a 30 degree angle and would have to be rebroken. I chose to work with it and live with needing to use a walker; I am 61, after all.
-A relationship I’ve been in and gone back to many times degenerated into the worst imaginable fights and pain; I ran, thank God.
-As recent posts indicate, I’ve had a tough time with the Church and exclusion based in phobias in the congregation toward those with non-obvious disability.
-Most recently, I’ve had to break my way out of the cocoon of co-dependency. I’m heading into therapy for depression and PTSD– again.
They are my current litanies of victimization, and I’m not a victim. Ultimately they will belong in my story after time has passed and I can view them with sufficient objectivity to write about them well and if they furnish the memoir’s point, which might be something like, writer feared that she would become her mother but didn’t, or I–we–any of us– don’t need to be defined by the past…. blah blah.
Despite my minority opinion among the She Writers the other day, I still contend that the goal of writing memoir should not be to heal or understand the Self. It should be to tell a powerful story: if self-healing is part of that story and is relevant for the reader, bravo. Again, to tell a powerful story requires distance and time. The things I have written about the recent traumas listed above are not very good. I don’t have the perspective on them to discern their lessons, much less to universalize them in a way that gives something to the reader.
The beauty of perspective is that it helps one place events in a greater context, both the personal and the cultural. For want of a better word, a memoir written by someone over fifty tends to be “fuller,” if written well
Another pitfall is that you run the risk of re-traumatizing yourself, spending all of those hours steeping yourself in darkness. I found it hard enough to write a vignette to be included in my memoir down the line of a suicide attempt I made over thirty years ago. I didn’t understand that I had ultimately cared enough about myself to terminate the attempt for many years. I just thought I chickened out, but not so. But when I wrote the piece, it brought it all back: I had to go back into that motel room with those pills, to bring the thing to life on the page. Was it hard? Terribly. But metaphorically speaking, I was able to leave the room once more. Those thirty years matter. Why does this belong in my memoir? Because I will be telling the story of someone who thought she was weak,, who in reality is a terrifically strong person. If writing this heals me, that’s great, but what I want is to put some hope out there.
As I’ve said elsewhere, it’s in at least one sense easy to write about trauma and call it memoir. Ready-made drama and pain. Well, the market is glutted with all of this private pain written without the benefit of time having passed made public. The boom is winding down. If you must write something you would like to elevate by referring to it as “memoir”, recast it in fiction and broaden it with fiction as well. Better yet, write in the immediacy and compression of poetry.
And, where all of this truth-telling is concerned, let’s consider the feelings of those close to us. If I had published a memoir about my mother’s madness when she was alive and handed her a copy, how would I feel today? 100% awful. She was in enough pain. I would have exploited her pain to further my literary career. What does that say about my love for my mother? Mothers make mistakes, sometimes terrible ones, as do fathers. But we don’t need to crucify them for it. If you’ve had a wounding relationship with your family and you put that into print too soon, it is likely you are going to present yourself as a victim to the rest of the world. You will not have yet arrived at the lush country of forgiveness.
It took me thirty-seven years to be able to write Nightfall in Verona about my trip to Europe in 1973. Here are some of the reasons:
I kept trying to romanticize it.
I didn’t want to include the hard stuff.
I hadn’t yet written enough nonfiction to sustain narrative.
I didn’t think I could it.
I didn’t want to do it because it was too painful.
So what happened?
I kept telling and retelling pieces of the thing to other people; they laughed and cried with me. I had been writing vignettes and getting better and better at telling a story. I realized that I could write the book by writing a vignette a day; that is what I did.
I now have a seventeen-chapter draft with epipgraphs from opera and other sources, and one query out to an agent with more planned. If I have to, I will bring this out under my own imprimatur, but I am practicing patience and playing wait and see.
For this writer, the essential ingredient that I must ingest every day is self-belief, the idea that what I have to say matters and is very good.
Ultimately, we will see if the memoirs written by comparatively young writers and in vogue hold up over time, brilliantly written though some of them are. The possibility of everything going into the ditch is a real one. Once more: my view is that memoir is not about something that happened a year ago, perhaps not even ten years ago. Events take place on a life’s continuum and we cannot discern that continuum or swim out into that water and see where we are without artistic maturity and perception informed by time.