Wednesday, March 30, 2016

the art of memoir

Here’s the thing: like a lot of people, I feel pretty ambivalent about memoirs, mostly because I’ve read some really mediocre ones. At their worst, it feels like the author is forcing me to sit through a therapy session with them, or as if I’m sitting across from an extroverted stranger with poor emotional boundaries at a coffee shop. He is just talking at me with no pause to insert myself into the conversation. Bordering on painful.

I’ve read a few good ones. I was surprised by Stephen King’s On Writing, which was fun and insightful and which I still remember parts of (telling, for me). More recently, Edwidge Danticant’s Oh Brother, I’m Dying placed her own current life as a writer and soon to be mother alongside the lives of her parents and uncle, who raised her in Haiti and then in America, giving readers a sense of what’s kept and passed along through blood and across oceans.

Let me get to it: I read The Art of Memoir (mostly on a friend’s recommendation) and really enjoyed it. Part critique (of memoirs the author has taught to aspiring writers for many years), part instruction, and part memoir (of course), the book felt like taking a master class with a good friend. I underlined a lot, but my biggest takeaway is this sense that writing about one’s own life is shaped by one's particular passions and way of moving through the world.

Here is a passage that brought it together for me:
… there begins to burble up onto the page what’s exclusively yours both as a writer and as a human being. If you trust the truth enough to keep unveiling yourself on the page – no matter how shameful those revelations may at first seem – the book will naturally structure itself to maximize what you’re best at. You’re best at it because it sits at the core of your passions.

Throughout the book, the author calls this "what's exclusively yours" talent, which is kind of her because implied is that we all have it. It just needs to be uncovered and refined – through hours spent writing, interrogating, remembering, revising. (I would add a few spiritual disciplines to this list, too, but that may be another post for another day.) 

Also implied is that, requiring a process that involves reexamining and “correcting the easy interpretation” in order to reach a version of truth worth sharing, writing may actually heal us. Which, in my opinion, makes the hard work of writing a good memoir a worthwhile pursuit.


(photo: magnetic poetry memoir with by my niece)

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