Just when I thought I’d move on and solely post semi-finished “creative work” on this blog, I ran across a post today I cannot stop myself from responding to.
Checking in from AWP at She Writes on the community blog, Jennifer Lauck, author of the nonfiction book Blackbird, contends that the women writers of the self-expose are contemporary Jeanne d’Arcs. Making of herself a sacrificial lamb, the new woman autobiographical writer burns in the telling of her story and again when she takes a critical bashing, and thereby becomes a heroine, a martyr.
Lauding several writers on an AWP panel for their relentless self-revelation, Lauck states: “As writers, memoirists and women, we fillet ourselves for the world, knowing we will be both elevated and slaughtered in the process. We do this personal dissection because, in the end, our experience of living is all we have. ”
I hope that someone who calls herself a writer has more than the raw material of her experience to work with. And more, I am concerned about the appropriation of the genre by women writers who attempt to elevate and enshrine first person narrative and a lurid page turner with mass appeal by calling it memoir– art. And, this business of laying oneself bare and martyring oneself for the sake of personal “truth” and self-revelation: hold it right there.
Memoir is the art of writing about the past from the perspective offered by the present. It is the genre of reflection, not martyrdom or self-dissection for its own sake. The purpose of memoir is to illuminate life within the context of time, place, culture and history– to illuminate and reveal that which is both universal and singular. True memoir is only secondarily related to personal catharsis.
According to Lauck, the critical response to the new personal writing by women is faulted or dismissed because said critics are threatened by and fearful of “truth”. In other words, if Helen Vendler or Northrop Frye were to fault The Possibility of Everything, it would be because they’re afraid of reading about how the author’s child was allegedly healed in Belize of a tyrannical imaginary friend, and not that it lacks the virtuousity and power of art, and should have been confined to a Reader’s Digest essay or a self-published book for family and friends.
Let me put things in a different way regarding the merits of personal expose’. Can anyone imagine Hemingway having written a memoir about his “personal truth”? How about Virginia Woolf. She does address her “madness” in A Writer’s Diary and elsewhere, but in relationship to her writing and she was, frankly, interesting enough, canonical enough so that her private suffering is of weight and meaning. Some of the people who should write memoir: a holocaust survivor. A veteran of the Viet Nam era. A great soprano. The last living son of Geronimo. Tom Sutherland, a former hostage for years in Beirut. Luke Russert, about his father. Katie Couric. Oprah. Donald Trump. : a 96 year old English woman I know in the nursing home next door who has shrapnel burns on her legs, was a Wren in WWII, helped soldiers visit their families from the French front lines under cover of the dark during the bombing of England, and worked on sheep ranches across Australia to earn the money to keep traveling. I’ve named mainly famous people but it isn’t about being famous; it’s about having lived and being able to look down at the valley of one’s experience from a plateau with a 360 view. A thirty year old soccer mom with an adopted son with RAD? I don’t think so. No matter how poignant, her story should go into NYT’s Modern Love column and no further. But obviously, I am in the minority opinion.
I am first a poet and I never thought I would be writing about memoir. I am writing a narrative about a series of events taking place nearly forty years ago with the mission of memorializing a beautiful collision of the cultural with the personal. Decades have passed, eroding the things that eclipsed and confounded the richness of this experience so that its true nature and complexity now stand revealed. Whether or not I will find a home for what I have written and whether or not it is any good is not for me to say and I don’t think I even have the right to call it memoir– I think that’s up to other, wiser people.
I am only a character in the story, a lens for what it is like to be a woman poet who takes a trip to Europe to relax and falls in love in Italy out of the blue. I strive to bring young love, exquisite Verona, and the sheer freedom and joy of being on the road in Europe to life. Personal epiphanies come as a result of having as my objective, making art. If my work is any good, it will be and should be not because I bared my soul but because I put my heart and soul into telling the story–truths and meanings emerge and do not require the mortification of the flesh.
Regarding my point on perspective, the nature and value of this experience needed to appear over time and present themselves to me. Going back into the room on the edge of the sea where we were first together has been like entering a painting and becoming part of it. A kiss is held up to the light and behold– it is far more than a kiss.
As I wrote the other day, in my cautionary post around the dangers of dredging up trauma, I became interested in this new non-genre and thought I’d give it a whirl and went under a scalpel I held in my own hand. This is an inherently dangerous thing to do. I did slice an artery and I did bleed onto the page and then I asked of my meager readership that they bleed with me. This is what many women autobiographical writers are doing and demanding of their readers. They are are asking people to join them in their private pain and live it with them so that they are not alone in it; that is their agenda rather than anything particularly heroic, like burning at the stake as the martyr for truth. But how does this not betray the reader? Why should the reader accompany the writer into the Inferno?
The homely truth of it all is this: sensational first person narratives on the NYT Best Seller List appeal to a reading public without aesthetics– the white masses, mainly women, looking for something to read while sun-bathing. The non-genre of pulp nonfiction has evolved from the “true stories” once published in women’s magazines: to turn such narratives into books and label them “memoir” neither furthers the credibility of nor promotes the stature of the woman writer. The word memoir has been appropriated to denote a frenzy of lurid accounts of traumatic events with the repetitive message of “If I could survive this so can you.” O.K. Put a little hope out there, that’s fine– but don’t call it “memoir” a.k.a. art. Publishers buy the manuscripts because they are cash cows, not because they are interested in putting literature out into the world.