An aspiring memoirist shares her top five challenges
IF YOU visit the bio page on my website, beneath a photo of me now and another of me at age 7, you’ll find an excerpt attributed this way:
From my memoir in progress — no end in sight.
Part of the problem is that I haven’t been able to settle on a title, which for me is like heading off to climb a mountain with no particular summit in mind. But even when I’ve had a working title (I’m currently on title no. 5), writing everything after that has presented its own challenges. So after decades of trying and failing to abandon this whole damn thing, I’m back at it again, tackling a new set of challenges. Below, I share them with you, in the hope of speeding along not only my work, but yours too.
Challenge No. 1: What the hell is a memoir?
Reporting on this year’s five Tony Awards garnered by the musical Fun Home for PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff sounded perplexed to hear herself refer to Alison Bechdel’s lesbian coming-of-age story upon which the play was based as a “graphic novel memoir.”
Traditionally, a memoir (from the French mémoire) referred to a collection of memories from the author’s life. A novel, by contrast, was a strictly imagined story — a fiction. There are autobiographical novels and fictionalized memoirs, but the memoir is still mostly true and the novel mostly not. So there should be no such thing as a “novel memoir.” Or so I thought.
Wrong. Take Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s just published My Struggle: Book Four, the latest installment in his six-volume 3,000-plus-page tome. In his New York Times review, acclaimed novelist Jeffrey Eugenides referred to Knausgaard’s books as “autobiographical works,” observing that Knausgaard “uses the stuff of his life.” In Book Four, Eugenides goes on, we read about “the author’s last year in high school, his love of drinking, his parent’s divorce … his romantic infatuations.” But in the same review, Eugenides refers to this work not only as a novel, but a “quest novel.” By contrast, a Washington Post reviewer deemed My Struggle a “monumental memoir.”
To have someone of Eugenides’ stature fail to address a fundamental question — If the work is true, Jeffrey, why isn’t it a memoir?! — was maddening to me. Which brings me to my second challenge…
Challenge No. 2: What is truth?
It is widely agreed that we don’t remember things as they were, and that different people can have different recollections of the same incident from the same place and the same time. This is a challenge for writers and readers alike. While I knew this intellectually, when I embarked on my memoir I was shocked at just how off-base our memories can be.
In the mid 1980s, I worked at a New York-area Planned Parenthood. Opposition to abortion was growing more ferocious every day. People were phoning in bomb threats, including one to my location, and we didn’t even perform abortions. The first abortion outpatient clinic in the Midwest was firebombed, nearly burned to the ground.
At the time, the Planned Parenthood where I worked was located in a storefront with a big street-level window. In my memory, during that time there gradually began the construction of a wall to cover up that inviting window, a brick wall. In my memory, day by day, the wall began gradually to block out the light, and darkness fell.
Being a journalist first and an aspiring memoirist later, I set about confirming my recollection by tracking down people I’d worked with; no easy task. I found them, but to my chagrin, no one remembered a wall. One woman reported that they did eventually shade the window glass of the storefront, but a brick wall? Only in my mind.
After that blatant failure of memory, I found the courage to resume writing by thinking of memoir the way essayist Robert Atwan does. In his contribution to this year’s terrific Memoir Issue of Creative Nonfiction, Atwan concludes that memoir is “a major genre of imaginative literature.”
I plan to go with the wall.
Challenge No. 3: Is it a memoir, or a book of essays?
In that same issue of Creative Nonfiction, memoirist Harrison Scott Key writes a hilarious essay about how much he hates the word memoir and the genre’s reputation as so much naval gazing. When people would ask what he was up to, he’d tell them he was writing “stories.” “I love short stories!” people would reply. No, Key would reluctantly confess; they’re true stories. “Memoir?” they’d say, unenthusiastically.
Looking to work in a more “respectable” form, Key temporarily considered becoming an essayist. “Essays!” he writes. “The word essay had a literary ring to it, a rich and aged patina and the scene of something serious … it was familiar, and more important, [unlike memoir] pronounceable.”
Today, other writers seem to be taking the opposite route. Take celebrated author Anna Quindlen’s most recent release, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of One Woman’s Life. While it is a wonderful book, it’s not a memoir. There isn’t a narrative holding it all together; there’s no story with a beginning, a middle, an end; there’s no consistent application of the tools of fiction writing. It’s a book of essays.
I had my own period when I was absolutely convinced I should be writing a book of essays and not a memoir, which makes sense, since I’ve written scores of essays but not a single memoir. But with this new freedom in the form — thank you, Anna — I may not have to decide.
Challenge No. 4: What age is the right age to be writing a memoir?
At this year’s American Society of Journalists and Authors conference I sat in on a panel, “From Then to Now: The Arc of the Memoir.” Talk about depressing. On the panel was Royal Young, who was in his late 20s when he wrote his first memoir, 2013’s Fame Shark, and is now in the process of writing his second. And he’s not alone. In her book Old Friend From Far Away on the practice of memoir writing, Natalie Goldberg calls the invasion of millennials into the genre “a revolution … a desire to understand in the heat of living, while life is fresh.”
But how young is too young to attempt the genre? That’s precisely the question tackled by two writers recently in the New York Times Book Review. Wrote Leslie Jamison, “It seems silly to pretend that nothing meaningful happens to the young.” Benjamin Moser countered, “The point at which one’s death can be glimpsed is also the best vantage for seeing one’s life.”
I’m at the death-on-the-horizon side. I’m jealous of those young people for whom stories are fresh, all the details right there for the plucking. Details fade with age, I know, but I also know that the mood and meaning of the most significant events burn a place in the mind. Fortunately, while Goldberg is clearly excited about this new breed of memoirists, she does attempt to encourage the rest of us, exhorting us to “let the thunder roll!” I appreciate the sentiment (though I’m not exactly sure what it means).
Challenge No. 5: What if I’m writing the wrong memoir?
A memoir is part of a life, not a whole life. But what if you’re halfway there when you realize you’re looking at the wrong part? What if the 70s were not your best decade? What then?
At that same ASJA panel, Kate Walter told the story of how her recent memoir, Looking for a Kiss: A Chronicle of Downtown Heartbreak and Healing, came to be. Originally, Walter wrote about her 25-year romantic relationship which, during the course of the writing, came undone. Midway through reading the manuscript, her agent called. The agent, realizing she knew exactly how the story was going to end, advised Walter instead to write about what it’s like for a 60-something lesbian to re-enter the world as a single woman, looking for love in the age of the Internet. Hence, Looking for a Kiss.
Since I have had such a hard time letting go of old material, to which I remain utterly and unnaturally attached, I asked Walter after the panel if she felt bad when she had to get rid of that first memoir. “No,” she said, surprised by the question. “But why?” I asked. “Because it wasn’t good,” she replied.
But what if you’re not at the end and you already think it’s no good; when is it time to give up? Like so many writers, I’m plagued by doubts: Do I have a good story? Am I telling it well? Will anyone want to read it? In response, a writer who I greatly admire advised me, “If you don’t finish this memoir, you’ll never know the answer to those questions.”
I hate unanswered questions. I hate unfinished projects. And I hate moving on. So here I am, in the middle of a raging river. It would take as much effort to get back to shore as it will to get to the other side. So for now, though I may not know what a memoir is, what truth is, if this is the right form or the right time or I’m the right age to be doing it, I’m in it. I hereby promise to paddle on.
Listen to Angela Bonavoglia’s 2014 interview with Sandi Klein here.