why (not) ask why; thinking about memoirs

I wanted to say a public thank you for the comments and emails I’ve received regarding my last two posts. They mean a lot to me and are deeply appreciated.

I’ve been thinking a bit about memoirs, in particular books like Rachel Resnick’s Love Junkie, Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Jerry Stahl’s Permanent Midnight and Alice Sebold’s Lucky. I love, love, love all these books for various reasons, not least the courage and honesty it takes to confront such difficult topics (love/sex addiction, father-daughter incest, heroin addiction, and stranger rape). I also remember the controversy surrounding Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss when it first hit the bookshelves — Harrison, by the way, is such an intelligent, elegant and compelling writer, one of my personal heroes — that had some people asking, Why write about this? What is the point? and What about Harrison’s children? Do they really need to know this stuff? Won’t it turn them into serial killers?

Not that it was anywhere near comparable, but when someone asked me more or less the same things about my “speak divorce” post, my response went along the lines of:

I *do* think there is something — a lot, actually — to be said for sharing experience (in a way that isn’t mean or bitter or pandering, etc.). Why do people write memoirs? Why do people *read* them? As far as kids go — what truly harms kids is….getting bits and pieces of (perhaps erroneous) information WITHOUT A PROPER CONTEXT in which to frame, assimilate, process them. Kids should not be treated like little adults — which they aren’t, obviously — but they should not be underestimated, either.

I mulled this stuff over in days following, especially when I realized that this blog is actually an ongoing memoir of sorts — a living memoir, if you will. (You would have thought I’d clue in when the instructor of a “blogging as memoir” college course invited me to speak but no, took another year for me to arrive at such a conclusion. I can be like that.) Why is the memoir such a popular and briskly selling genre? Why, after reading one of the books listed above, was my immediate response to want to write the author a gushy fan letter saying I love you for writing this book ? Anybody want to throw out some theories on this?

At any rate, I give you this piece from the Boston Globe , which is a guy writing a review about a book by another guy writing about people who write memoirs. Highlights are mine.

The art of the memoir: more than an exercise in navel-gazing
by Robert Braile

The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
By Sven Birkerts
Graywolf, paperback, 192 pp., $12

It is hard to imagine a genre more misunderstood than memoir. Sometimes, these personal stories of our lives can illuminate the hearts and minds of writer and reader alike. Other times, they amount to little more than narcissism.

As a memoirist, critic, and teacher, Sven Birkerts is well positioned to explore this subject, and thankfully so. His “The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again,” is instructive, observant, and astute, a meditation on craft and culture by a relentlessly thoughtful writer. It is even at times a memoir itself, as honest and artful as any he examines.

Memoir, Birkerts writes, requires the juxtaposed perspectives of past and present, of what one recalls and how one recalls it. The recollection should be intuitive rather than chronological, a “felt past” allowing the themes of one’s life to emerge. They should be as relevant to the reader as they are defining of the writer, “universalizing the specific” in ways that assume “there is a shared ground between the teller and the audience.”

Lyrical memoirists, like Vladimir Nabokov, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, have pursued “restoration, searching out recurrences and patterns, but also then allowing for the idea that pattern hints at a larger order, possibly an intention to underlying experience.” Coming-of-age memoirists, like Frank Conroy, Jo Ann Beard, and Maureen Howard, have sought to extract from this “most dramatically fraught period of our lives” a sense of “how I came to be who I now am,” Birkerts writes.

Sons have sought reconciliation with their remote fathers through memoir, as in writings by Paul Auster, Geoffrey Wolff, and Blake Morrison. Daughters have sought distance from their domineering mothers, as in writings by Jamaica Kincaid and Vivian Gornick. Still others have struggled to confront and overcome trauma in their pasts, from incest to disfigurement, like Mary Karr, Richard Hoffman, Lucy Grealy, and Kathryn Harrison, Birkerts writes. Each memoirist has traversed the landscape between past and present in varying ways, using an array of literary techniques to craft their works.

Ultimately, however, memoirists share the human desire to know themselves, for their own sakes as well as their readers. They seek to recall and re-create their lives, and, in so doing, to compel readers to do the same. “Memoir is a narrative art,” Birkerts writes, “but through its careful manipulation of vantage point it simulates the subjective sense of experience apprehended through memory and the corrective actions of hindsight. In other words it gives artistic form to what is the main business of our ongoing inner life.”

Birkerts is as incisive a literary analyst as he is eloquent a literary essayist. His occasional forays into his own life further elucidate his points by way of example, while they offer glimpses into the mind of a memoirist writing about memoirists. His book, required reading for anyone interested in the genre, is an engaging study of how we come to understand ourselves through this most personal of literary expressions.


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