Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Why We Write About Ourselves - Ed. Meredith Maran (2016)

For NaNoWriMo 2015, I wrote a 60,000 word shitty first draft of a memoir, to be published when I was 33, to document these first 33 years, with the thought that I might do it again at 66, if I live that long.  This, apparently, would be a horrible memoir, because no one wants to read about every meaningful event of some random person's existence.  No, they want to read about more specific events in your life, things that happened which were extraordinary--pain you suffered--which you can relate on a universal level.

This is the lesson I learned from Why We Write About Ourselves, another rare book that was sent to me by a publicist.  It's ironic to mention two gifts that two of my sisters received on Christmas morning.  My younger sister received a copy of Tales of Two Cities and my youngest sister received a book by Cheryl Strayed, which I think was The Beautiful Things.  My sister hadn't read my review, but she specifically requested the book, and I guess neither had my mother.  It's the only time I was "ahead of the curve" with this blog, and I hope that's the case here again: certainly my youngest sister would be interested in this one, as a fan of Strayed.  And frankly, between this and Tales, this was the better read.

Unfortunately, it won't be named to the Best Books of Flying Houses list, to make for a perfect trifecta with Raymond Carver and Patti Smith, but that is only because the form this book takes.  It is a different sort of book than I have ever read, and it reads more like a very long magazine article.  It's a very good article, but it's written to be read in little candy-sized nuggets.  I think that makes it especially appealing in today's socio-cultural climate of social media saturation and ADHD.  Basically, it is not aiming for canonical status.  Instead, this book is perfect for one of two things: checking out from the library, or gift-giving.  One could certainly purchase this book for themselves if they have made up their mind to write a memoir, but it's more of a book to expose yourself to once and learn from, rather than to pore over and savor for the richness of its language.

Still, I am very happy I read this book, if only because of its ulterior motive: publicity.  There are 20 chapters in this book.  Here are the writers that I knew going in: Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Meghan Daum and Edmund White.  There were some writers I didn't know, but knew of vaguely: Pat Conroy, David Sheff and Sue Monk Kidd.  For the 13 other writers for which I had no direct reference point, I was forced to be exposed to their minds: what they wrote about, why they wrote about it, and how.  And I will definitely be putting a few of their books on my reading list.

As previously mentioned with these anthologies, they make for difficult reviews.  I don't want to give short shrift to any of the contributors, but I don't want the review to go on endlessly.  I suppose the best thing to do is hit the highlights--for me, personally.

The first section that struck me as quotable came from Anne Lamott.  Now I have mentioned Bird by Bird before on this blog, somewhere, and upon reflection I had to read it for a creative writing class my senior year in high school, and I think it did inspire me at an impressionable age to throw my whole self into the writing thing, which was a huge mistake (however, it was not nearly as big a mistake as throwing myself into the whole lawyer thing--while the law may ultimately provide me with an avenue for an outwardly respectable career, it has impoverished me, robbed me of the last vestige of youth and destroyed my self-esteem and self-respect).  At least a couple times in this book, Bird by Bird is referred to as something of a "bible" of creative writing.  I'll have to check it out again.  Lamott's section in this book is a definite highlight:

"I wrote a piece about my mom in Traveling Mercies, and it really hurt her feelings.  I thought it would be such a great thing to tell the truth about my mom, because my whole life had been about about this made-up relationship, pretending I wasn't mad about the damage she'd done to me.
I wrote this very tender piece about her in her last days, when she had Alzheimer's.  It wasn't even a critical piece.  It just said that she could drive me crazy.  Sadly she didn't have bad enough Alzheimer's.  She read it and went bonkers.  My mom's twin sister called me up and said, 'You will never be forgiven for this, Annie.'
The crisis passed.  Then it turned out it was great to have told the truth about deeply crazily I loved her and that she'd been a handful."  (136)

These sort of themes emerge over and over throughout this book.  What will my friends and family think of the memoir?  How much personal information can I reveal about other people?  Do I have to reveal everything about myself?

Most seem to agree that, you should always make yourself look as bad as possible.  As a person that has often followed this rule without hearing anyone else say it, this felt comforting.  Moreover it feels refreshing in 2016, where our public image has to be so squeaky clean on social media and anything the slightest bit non-PC can end up leading towards ostracization from the in-crowd.

Most seem to follow the rule that, if they write about one of their friends, they send it to them and make sure they are okay with it being published.  I've never really had to do this because I've never been published in any meaningful way.  However my youngest sister became very upset when I made a reference to "wanting to kill my parents" in an unfortunate section of Think and Grow Poor, and upon reflection I should have edited that book more before publishing it in its mostly craptastic form.  You can't say I don't know anything about memoir writing.  I guess I just subscribed to the view that Edmund White expresses near the very end.  Actually, the last sentence:

"In general, I try to be very honest in my memoirs.  If I lose the friendship, so what?  I believe Milosz, the Nobel-winning Polish poet, who said, 'Whenever a writer is born into a family, that family is destroyed.'
On the other hand I sometimes say the best way to keep a secret is to publish it, since no one reads.  My books aren't indexed.  So anyone who wants to know what I wrote about him has to read the whole thing." (254)

Speaking of White, he is the only author to appear in both this volume and Tales of Two Cities.  He also makes this ridiculous, Wilt Chamberlain-esque claim:

"My protagonist in A Boy's Own Story was much less precocious intellectually and sexually than I was.  He was shyer.  If I'd written about myself as the freaky boy I really was, very few people could have identified with that novel.  That book came out in '82.  I don't think that was quite the period yet for my own true story.  In real life, I had had sex with five hundred men, most of them older than I was, by the time I was sixteen.  The boy in the book has one or two experiences, with boys his own age." (250)

My only response to that is, what the fuck dude!
But yeah, I'll probably check out some of his books.


There are a few glaring omissions from this volume.  It would have been remarkable to read a section by James Frey, but instead he is just referenced by another writer (again, White):

"There have been so many scandals about memoirs that weren't true.  The author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil confessed that he'd taken two phone conversations that were crucial to the story and collapsed them into one.  People were very disturbed when the author of A Million Little Pieces, which purported to be a memoir and was directed to a very vulnerable population of recovering addicts, admitted that his girlfriend hadn't really committed suicide.  There were some other events that he falsified, which led to his denunciation on Oprah.
That's a good example to keep in mind.  People do feel cheated when you lie in a memoir because you've broken your contract with your readers." (252)

I've never read A Million Little Pieces and I think most people nowadays would say it's not especially necessary to do so, but one cannot forget the cultural import that the book briefly possessed.  The other writer that should be here is Dave Eggers.  A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius has not been discredited and seems to defy most of the "rules" that these writers pronounce.  Eggers hasn't written anything like it since, but I still believe it's his strongest work and a true high watermark of the medium.  It's far from perfect, but I still think if I read it again 14 years later, it would make the Best Books list (The Real World interview chapter alone should qualify it).  Then again, this is an unfair criticism to make.  It's not clear if Maran reached out to these authors or if perhaps they could not write outside of their contracts with their current publishers.

I want to mention Meghan Daum.  I first became aware of her in 2008, when I was offered a limited free subscription to the Los Angeles Times.  I read her column every week and looked at her picture and thought she was cute and prayed that she would be my girlfriend.  She was cute and I liked what she wrote and she had a regular newspaper gig--did anything else really matter?  Subsequently I left L.A. and forgot about her.  Then, about a year ago, I came across her name in relation to her new book about making the conscious decision not to have children (Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decisions Not to Have Kids) and my crush was briefly renewed at an even more intense level, until I found out she was married.  Also, she was 13 years older than me.  Not that that's a deal-breaker or anything--she looked good for her age.  I mean, she wrote an essay and then a book about being deeply indebted in her 20's called My Misspent Youth.  She also made me feel better about my newest NaNoWriMo project:

"That thing I said earlier about weighing each detail to determine whether it's worthy of inclusion?  That's for the third, fourth, or fifth draft.  Not the first draft.
The 'morality' of any given project has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.  If you're writing about yourself just for the sake of writing about yourself, and other people are going to get dragged along for the hellish ride, it might it might be wise to examine the worthiness of the venture.  If you have something important to say that can only--or at least most effectively--be said through the lens of your own story, then go for it." (86)


Randomly, in here, I'd like to excerpt a brief snippet from Darin Strauss's section, as Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish are still fresh in our memories on this blog:

"Amy Hempel tells a good story about when she was in a beginning workshop with Gordon Lish.  He had the class write about the one thing that most embarrassed them.  The only restriction was that you had to write it as honestly as possible.  She said that out of that class of fifteen people, seven or eight published pieces they wrote in that class.  If you write something honestly, it'll be worth reading.  If you don't, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are.  The reader will feel it." (200-201)


I could mention Ayelet Waldman's contribution as another highlight, or the weird celebrity spouse connections (she is married to Michael Chabon, while contributor Nick Flynn is married to Lili Taylor (ironically another unusual crush of mine)), but the last thing I want to mention is the one bit of advice on which I do not agree.  Waldman mentions it as a piece of advice given by Chabon, but like other tips in this book, it shows up in various forms:

"When I first started writing, Michael told me that if you're not uncomfortable, you're not writing what you need to write.  If your work feels really safe and pleasant, there's a problem." (222)
"If you're not uncomfortable and scared while you're writing, you're not writing close enough to the bone." (230)

David Sheff also adds, "If what you're writing about wasn't intense, you wouldn't be writing about it.  Writing a memoir can dredge up every awful feeling all over again.  Make sure you have the support you need to make it through." (192)

Now of course, a memoir about how your life has been so happy and perfect will make people want to throw up, but there are brighter sides to life as well, and we should know because we've seen them, if not very often.  You know I have always wanted to read Morrissey's Autobiography.  Maybe that's not a memoir, though.

Sorry for that.  Anyways, sometimes when I'm writing a piece of creative non-fiction, there are some wonderful moments back in there that you want to share with a reader, you want to put them there with you, you want them to feel the happiness you felt.  Is that so wrong?

That's really my only criticism of the "wisdom" of this book.  I think it's okay to write about the times when life was good.  It's not a useless nostalgia trip.  It's a document that you were alive, and that it wasn't all pain and misery, even though much of the time it felt that way.

In short: read this book if you have any designs whatsoever on writing a memoir.  It's a quick read (less than a week), it's entertaining, and it should help put you in the right frame of mind to accomplish your task.  Also it lists all of these writers' Twitter accounts so I'm going to start following them right about now.

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