I admire the thoughtful columns of Meghan Daum. Recently she drew an interesting distinction between what writers put into a memoir–stating that it should be an honest report on a life and not a confession. She stated that some writers of memoir treat the form without respect.
“They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession.” —Salon, January 2013
To simplify, Daum believes
- a memoir that reads like a confession is asking the reader for something;
- a memoir that is an honest relating of one’s life is a generous gift, a sharing of a life so the reader will feel less alone.
When I read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion, I was transported. Didion worked through the loss of her husband in that book–but she wasn’t asking me to weep for her, she was offering the gift of shared human experience. From her book I wrote my piece THE DAY OF MAGICAL THINKING. I then read her next book, BLUE NIGHTS, about her daughter’s illness and death. I cherish both of these honest and endearing works. Didion from The Year of Magical Thinking:
We all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy.
So true, and yes lately–we have been reading a great deal about shock and awe on Elm Street. FOR A CHANGE– I’d like to focus on stories that are shockingly wonderful. Stories of success and happiness–because they can happen just as fast as sorrowful events. We all need to work harder at focussing on the positive.
- So Meghan Daum has a point: let’s focus on those people in our lives who are walking memoirs, the ones who share their lives and their stories with us and give us some joy.
- They don’t harangue us with negatives, tear down the way we live; they aren’t constantly begging us for attention and complaining about their lot. We do not need their ugly negative thoughts.
Didion was deeply hurting in both of her books; she was in sorrow over the loss of her husband and daughter. But she gave of herself with openness and shared with her readers the JOY of her life, the WONDER of those precious relationships and the POSITIVES of the human experience.
Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? It’s more than a diary. It should really be the awakening of memory and the sharing of your soul. When you search Amazon for books on how to write a memoir, there are many to choose from. But this one stands out. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, writes about memory itself:
Memory is a pinball in a machine–it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken the moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk–how did so much fit into such a small space?
I’m no Meghan Daum or Joan Didion, but I did write a memoir over 15 years ago, that like other work I have done is filed in a cabinet. I searched that work today, found a passage that might qualify as GIVING you something–I am certainly not asking for forgiveness or confessing a sin. This goes back to my childhood. I am trying to remember it. Did the clowns spill out of the car trunk?
My mother gives us a record with the story of the PIED PIPER of HAMLIN. I play this over and over. It is a strange story about a town infested with rats, about a piper who can rid the town of these pests, and then, because he is not properly paid for his deed, plays his pipe once more, coaxing the children to follow him out of the town along a winding road, over a hill and eventually into a long tunnel. It leads to a place where the honey bees have lost their sting. This last detail I always remember. It seems to linger with me, the tunnel, the honey bees that don’t sting. I keep picturing all the children in line in the darkness and then emerging into the light at the other end. There are flowers and trees and the warmth of sunshine and these marvelous bees.
Sometimes, when I lie awake and the hall light is off, I worry that I’ll hear that strange alluring music, that I will disappear into that tunnel. It is in the dark of that bedroom that I discover how dry my lips can get, the existence of uneven spaces between my teeth, the clutching pain of stomach cramps before vomiting. It is the darkness of that room that sheds on me the light of discovery.
P.S. I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don’t be afraid.