The Mark Blog

The Thing About Memoir (A Three-Part Rant)


Part One:

I’m sick of memoir being the red-headed stepchild of the literary world. I don’t ever need to read another diatribe, written by people who’ve never attempted the form, about how memoir is the easy way out for writers. Yes, I’m still looking at you, Neil Genzlinger. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, start here, and then use your Google finger to read some of the passionate responses in various literary places.) And YOU, Lorrie Moore; ugh, I ADORE your writing, but I’m crushed by your take on memoir in the New York Review of Books. Fortunately, I can’t even find a full copy of it online anymore, or I’d still be obsessing on it and whimpering, “Why, Lorrie, why?” Trust me, it was ugly.

Here’s the thing: good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Pritchett said it. And he was oh-so-right. Obviously, I’m not talking about Tori Spelling’s newest contribution, I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott, Cheryl Strayed, and my very own Mark advisor, Samantha Dunn. I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.

Part Two:

If you’re an aspiring memoirist and you’re participating in a workshop or a conference or a class somewhere, PLEASE let go of the idea that this is some sort of therapy for you. You’re not helping the cause. I’m not insensitive to the notion that you might need some therapy. I think we can all use some therapy. I’m a big fan. But the classroom is not the place for that. Your first clue is that there’s no couch. You have to figure out your shit before you start telling your story. Which is not to say that the writing process isn’t therapeutic or that you won’t have realizations on the page, but if you’re telling a story that sounds like a soap opera, with angels and demons and someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snidley Whiplash, well, you’re probably doing it wrong. For what it’s worth, in the process of writing my own memoir, I’ve fallen in love with my homeless mother who killed herself and my distant, absentee father who died of hard living and a broken heart. I’d like to think that gives me more leeway on the page. If I can come from a place of honesty and love, I might be able to tell a personal story that resonates on a universal level. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age.

Part Three (I could certainly go on, but I have a word count):

If you’re in a workshop/conference/classroom setting, you owe it to yourself to get out of your own way about your protagonist. I realize it’s touchy. Technically, your protagonist is, well, you. But it isn’t. It’s a construct of you, rendered specifically for the page. If your peers are telling you that your protagonist is pretentious and bitchy, well, ouch. But the truth is that it’s your craft (ew, I said craft) that’s painting the picture. You get to figure out the story you want to tell and—and this is where the real work comes in—how to tell it on the page. That’s the journey.

When I was an Emerging Voices fellow, we had the privilege of having dinner at Janet Fitch’s house, and she said something that’s stayed with me about the workshop process (and for god’s sake, she’s a Kate Braverman survivor, so she should know). What she said was this: if you find one or two people in the course of a workshop who understand your work, you’re fucking lucky—needless to say, I’m paraphrasing—and she added this: when you find your people, cling to them. For everyone else, you just have to put your fuck-you goggles on and move forward.

I’ve been writing this book since 2006. I can count on one hand the people I trust to read my work and comment incisively. I feel incredibly lucky to have them. Everyone else—including people who decry the entire genre of memoir as irrelevant, or indulgent, or some other derogatory word that starts with the letter 'i'? Well, I can’t see you because I have my fuck-you goggles on. Every writer needs a pair.