We’ve all experienced it, that feeling of “what if” or “if only.” I just never expected it would apply to my reading life. I’ll admit that I never gave memoir a chance, not really, until I tried to write one.
I’m five months away from completing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Bennington College, something I never imagined. Though I once thought I would finish the book I’m writing about my relationship with my father by this June (such a special snowflake!*), I now know that’s not true. It’s going to take time to make it sing. But in the course of being absolutely, completely focused on my goal — a lifelong habit, and maybe a bad one — I accidentally fell in love, thanks to amazing reading matchmakers including authors Dinah Lenney, Joan Wickersham and Peter Trachtenberg (as well as my classmates).
Read 100 books, write one, indeed.
The best memoirs invite the reader into the writer’s world through fine observations of character and place and situation. They do so economically, by selecting just-right details that stick in the reader’s imagination. They elevate the mundane, pull the extreme within reach. They avoid sappiness. Sometimes, not always, the reader experiences that smack-to-the-head moment of recognition. Memoirs are stories.
Can’t the same be said of novels? Well, yes, but memoirs are written by real people, a veracity that gives them added dimension. I’m not suggesting that the memoirist isn’t a character; no, no, the narrator is a construction. The best tour guides show us enough of their doubt and wonder, the workings of their minds, for us to trust them. As Adam Gopnik put it last week in The New Yorker, “We like an author who gives it to us straight, no matter how fancy his prose style may be.” Writing about two re-released memoirs by Henry James, he continued: “…(H)is purpose in his memoirs is touchingly transparent: to say how the big moments of his life felt exactly as they happened. Each page is lit up by the bright light of memory, then is crumpled by the aging hand of scruple, only to be smoothed out again by the comfort of fine old feelings: It looked like this! Did it really look like this? Well, it sure felt like this while I was looking. The simple end of offering a recreation of one life’s moments remains, if guarded by enough ironic intelligence, perfectly attainable.”
I’ve got some distance to go to achieve “ironic intelligence,” not to mention illumination and sense-making of my story.
But here’s a quote that makes me feel slightly more heartened, from Patricia Hampl, one of my heroes: “Because everyone has a memoir, we all have a stake in how such stories are told. For we do not, after all, simply have experience; we are entrusted with it. We must do something — make something — with it. A story, we sense, is the only possible habitation for the burden of our witnessing.” (from “Memory and Imagination,” an essay in, I Could Tell You Stories)
I know I’m a far better writer now than when I began my MFA. I know I have some distance to go. I don’t know if I’ll get “there,” wherever the hell “there” is. But this is as certain as the coffee table under my feet: I’ll keep reading, and this time I won’t ignore nonfiction, especially memoir.
For great reviews of nonfiction books, check out the Los Angeles Review of Books nonfiction section (LARB, by the way, is a nonprofit). As an example, I am salivating to read The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin, written up here. And for one of the best books, ever, about reading and writing, I recommend Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. It will change the way you read and maybe your life.
Gulp. Here’s a list of memoirs that have blown the top of my head off since entering my MFA program:
Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth
Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Krista Bremer’s My Accidental Jihad
Mary Carr’s Liar’s Club
Bernard Cooper’s The Bill From My Father
Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave
Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face
Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter
Dinah Lenney’s The Object Parade
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk
Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?
Abigail Thomas’ Safekeeping
Peter Trachtenberg’s Another Insane Devotion (plus: cats!)
Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index
*Credit here to Charles Bock who read from his soon-to-be-released novel, Alice & Oliver and commented on the mistaken belief of many MFA’ers that they will finish their book by the time they graduate.