Awhile back, I wrote a post that mentions Ursula K. Le Guin's relatively tight position on "truth" in memoir. She struggles with the increasing allowance granted to memoir writers, as a genre.
I struggle with her essay on it, because while I fundamentally agree with some of her ideas - we have to be careful about how much leeway we give ourselves when we don't actually remember things, etc - I think that memoir is changing, for good or at least for awhile, and getting more free in form - more lyrical, less narrative. If our forms of memoir are beginning to resemble poetry over prose, even if in paragraphs, then the permissable also shifts.
Monday, April 22, 2013
But it's more subtle than that. Alice Miller, in her book The Body Never Lies, goes pretty deep into analyzing, for instance, certain writers and how we can see what they struggled with, even though they don't express it directly in their journals/diaries. Because I am less interested in this kind of direct interpretation and more interested in overall communication "between" (as if they are separate) body and mind, the latter sections of this book (parts II and III) are what interest me most.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
|Chicago Bean, March 2013|
"Sure," I answer.
"Why so much animosity towards your mother and so much affection for your father?"
"Honestly? I don't know."
This is this last Sunday, at a memoir critique group I run with some of my students.
I thought I had the answer. For a long time, throughout my teens, at least. After my mom died, I was so certain of my anger, of the solidity of my struggle with her, that I never questioned it until a month-long meditation retreat in my mid-twenties made me realize I actually missed her. Was sad about her death, not just angry.
When I began writing my memoir about childhood and sexuality, about family and relationships and intimacy (Bermuda Triangles), I found it as simple as describing her physically. Ditto my father. My editor at the time said "I am not buying it. She loves her dad but I don't see any reason why."
"But doesn't every little girl adore her dad?"
"Not all of them. And that's not reason enough. You have to show us why SHE does."
That lead to a lot of unpeeling, unveiling of all kinds of mixed feelings about my father, who died when I was 12, that I didn't even know I had.
Now I am there with my mother. Last week was her 72nd birthday, or would have been, were she still alive. Her best friend from elementary school posted on my wall that she misses my mom sometimes so much she could scream. I replied that I do, too. That's a big deal - wanting to see my mom, wishing she were still alive. The older I get, the more I feel I understand her, and the less I am sure that I really disliked her that much.
This all gets filed under "the danger of a single story" - the personal aspect of a wonderful TED talk that Chimamanda Adichie gave a couple of years ago. It's a fantastic talk, and one that is easily applied to memoir writing. I am not, of course, the only person in this situation - a few of my students are struggling with the same thing: Why is it that *your* mother doesn't appear at all in your memoir? If you didn't in fact hate *your* father your whole childhood, then what? How *did* you get to be so independent at such a young age?
I dare say that most memoirs written, published, emphasis a single story. Isn't that, after all, what we are writing the memoir for? To tell a story? *A* story? Not many stories or paradoxical feelings or exploring something answerless. And yet, that's what our stories actually are. They aren't neatly tied up or answered. Writing memoir should make us more aware that the stories we've told, while they have been our truth for a long time and therefore do have *an* effect on us, are not the "only truth".
I am not even talking about objective truth here - what "really" happened - as if any of us can really find that out thirty years later. No, I am talking about the multiple truths of how we feel about things at different eras and ages. If I believed that I hated my mom for a fair span of my adolescence, then, whether or not I actually did, that story carries a lot of weight. That single story is true, in a sense, and yet, is not the whole truth. When I look back into journals and writings, the Family Circle cartoons she left me as a way of trying to communicate humor, I see moments of affection and connection between us. I even read, from time to time, "I love my mom." Even though I seemed to block out such complexity at the time, it did exist. And that is what I want to write.
So maybe the reason why I can't explain the utter animosity in my story towards my mom - not now, now I have compassion, but in the mind of the child I am depicting - the reason why I can't explain the total boundless affection towards my father - again, not now, now tempered by reality, but of the child then - has less to do with "forgetting something" and more to do with remembering things - and realizing that the single story I am prone to telling first isn't the actual story at all.
Maybe it would make a better sale if I were to set up that dichotomy: good cop, bad cop. Dualistic. Nice and clean. But it's completely unreal. And my inability to write it that way in a believable way does not mean I am doing a bad job. It means I am so bound to the truth that I cannot tell a single story, though I told it in my mind for decades. It's time to uncover the real stories. The ones I find writing that I never realized I knew all along.
Even if this memoir never gets published, it's been a hell of a process. Hard. Very hard. And also healing beyond belief: not because I am "finally telling" stories that need telling. No. Quite the opposite. Because I realize those stories I've been hiding aren't the real story. Maybe that's why I hid them for so long - if others read them I knew they'd say "I am not buying this," in the most loving way, just as my critique group is saying now.
Friday, March 15, 2013
|Without Self, Chicago, February 2013|
I can't believe I haven't asked this question before.Never.
I mean, really. I've been writing non-fiction, predominantly memoir for years now and not once has that ever entered my mind. I have thought and written about related topics: how to write stories that open us instead of solidfying us (a great blog post by Susan Piver here on that topic, that leads to others' thoughts on it on their blogs). I've certainly contemplated Natalie Goldberg's maxim "You are not the writing," and visited upon my own identifying with/investing in my writing.
But late one night about a week ago, on the toilet (hey, that's where it happens sometimes) it hit me. I had been studying a lot of Buddhist teachings in preparation for AD training (an assistant director for Shambhala Training), a further meditation instructor authorization. Lots of teachings on emptiness (which is actually fullness) and no-self (which is actually to say that we are all connected/the same, ultimately).
And it hit me like a truck - how can I write about myself if my self doesn't exist?The answer is multi-fold, and a crux point for this blog all around. I am a Buddhist teacher who also teaches writing, so the answers, as I hope to keep exploring them, are going to be Buddhist-bent. For me, that also means good, clear, strong writing. I certainly don't think you have to be a Buddhist to be a good writer. However, the teachings of Buddhism certainly have a lot to offer to help keep writing fresh, clear and strong.
As we write our stories, I will simply say for now, we can notice whether or not we are using them to pin us down ("THIS is who I am,") or to explore/open/lean into the groundlessness of what it means to be a person - constantly changing, never secure, never sure. Writing memoir from the POV of "all-knowing future self" is not only annoying and unskillful, it is also not truthful.
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
I'd say more than that - if we can really experience/direct compassion towards those "former selves" then we can truly be here in the life we are living now.
When I was younger, I sure loved looking back on my journals. I'd be like, "Oh yeah. I have matured so much since then!" Until I realized, some time in my twenties, that I'd always be able to say later that I "figured that all out," which means I never have it all figured out. I became mortified, instead, of my journals, as signs reminding me how very human I am.
Now, I try to be grateful as often as I can for that very same information. I want raw humans writing in my classes, and I want to be one myself. I want to read them.
So let's work together with this seeming paradox:
writing the stories of the self that does not exist.
Like an Aesop's fable. Only this one isn't fixed - it's always in progress.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
|"OP N" Chicago February 2013|
This morning, I read this passage in Chogyam Trungpa's guide for Shamatha instructors. While this is a limited text, this passage does not impart anything secretive, so I believe I can share it. It connects in really well with the ongoing conversation here regarding the role of "confession" in memoir:
A lot of people fall into the trap of confessionalism. You begin to tell people how bad you were, how terrible the trauma was that you have gone through..You feel the students will think you are an honest guy, and you have vomited everything you have to vomit. Somehow this seems to be very deceptive in some sense; it builds you up, showing how honest a person you are.. (This is not very dignified).. You are comparing notes between two people in jail, and somehow that doesn't seem to be the point..Obviously there should be first-hand experience exchanged, but at the same time one shouldn't indulge that particular style of winning someone's confidence. That's a double twist of some kind -- that purity and at the same time a lot of personality trips are involved.I like that - "the trap of confessionalism" and "you have vomited everything you have to vomit." I have spoken here before about the importance of not hiding important details - how the readers know when the writer has not shared important information, can feel the lack or the lie. And yet, if we have some idea that by sharing it all we have fulfilled a role for the reader, we have sorely missed out on nuance and respect.
-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Manual for Shamatha Instructors
Tuesday, February 26, 2013
It's coming on strong - as it has been for the last couple of years: What's Up With Memoir?
Is it fact?
Is it fiction?
This is becoming a theme in this blog, which is ok with me. Here's a just-found article (new-to-me) on Why Some Memoirs Are Better As Fiction. I think he clarifies a point that Le Guin makes that I wasn't getting through her dismissal of any conversation recounted=fiction, never truth. Taylor Antrim, the article's author, points out that memoir can become a short cut - a weak version of story telling, where authors are not held accountable for making solid characters. They pick and choose from the cherry tree of literary styles/methods, and leave behind the most solid storytelling.
I could give him that. Now, re-reading Le Guin's essay, I can hear where she is coming from better. He also points out there's a long and respected tradition of auto-biographical fiction (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath being a big one). So now I am feeling out - what would be better done as fiction?
This liminal space, this mixing of style and manner, content and intent, is risky for sure, and it is only getting riskier. The more I personally work on memoir, the more I want to write in present tense, dropping the reader and myself into the moment without reservation. Some kind of truth is coming forward that would not if I kept writing in the past tense, or "about" conversations instead of the conversations themselves. Do I not entirely recall things or recall things incorrectly? It's a given.
Can we write memoir knowing that's a given?
What's the line between what is acceptable and what isn't?
Between "emotional truth" and factual lies?
I have a lot of journals, some of which contain actual interactions with others. I am curious when I encounter them what I recalled incorrectly. I know that is not just a possiblity but a likelihood.
But I don't want to write fiction. I want to write memoir and I want my story to be taken as such. I appreciate Antrim's notes on responsibility of the writer, and would like to apply them to my own work. More helpful fodder for writing strong memoir. I am, however, certainly writing memoir.
What if we *accept* that likelihood and create a new form, well, that's already been created: more memoir than fiction, more autobiographical than projection, and yet. Well.
I am fine with what Le Guin notes in her essay - as soon as we encounter actual dialogue, we know that it's not factual recall but emotional recall. However, here's where she and I diverge: what if, instead of at that moment we trust the writer less (as she says she does), we recognize what they are doing, the style they are using, and continue with that understanding?
We read the memoir knowing the memoir is based on emotional recall and not factual. We accept that the parameters of memoir have changed, while still holding folks accountable for outright lies and manipulations.
We use memoir as a chance to notice how memory works, how minds work, and stay curious instead of sticking to former concepts of how personal stories should be told?
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
A student sent me a link to this article in the Opinionator (NYT). It's title is very apt - for the Peter Gabriel video above, for the content of this blog post: "The Body Under the Rug."
It's the most recent in a long line of many, many articles and opinion pieces on memoir, especially in the NYT. It's all the rage to rage on memoir lately, and I am very interested in the direction it is taking. I am very interested in the direction memoir is taking, period. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines in his book Creativity (2004), innovation is based not only in what is created but how it interacts with what is already - or isn't already - available.
I hate to say it, but I think what has been happening lately is that the "Reality TV" form of innovation has taken over in memoir. Which is to say: the more I confess, the more shame I out, the more fresh the memoir will be. Fresh as in fresh meat.