Why, in the end, do we read memoir? What’s in it for us – these stories about someone else, these hundreds of pages of adversity and self-discovery, triumph and tarnish and gleam? These are other people’s lives, after all. Strangers, mostly. People we’ll never meet, people whose clocks most often keep on ticking, long after the last words have been inked. Sure, the form has had its fair share of bad press, thanks in no small part to the not-true “true” stories offered by the likes of James Frey’s discredited addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces, and Herman Rosenblat’s invented Holocaust love story Angel at the Fence. Sure, it’s been furiously protested, as countless otherwise unknown writers have turned to memoir to package and parade their tall adventure, their unhappy childhood, their ghastly marriage, their misguided mother, their bad luck. Still, every single week a new batch of personal stories is released. Memoir isn’t going anywhere.
So what does memoir offer? What can it yield? Why am I, after all these years, still reading it, teaching it, shaping it, seeking it? The answers are many, but here I offer just one: Because memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation. It makes its interest in readers explicit, offering not just a series of life events, but a deliberate suggestion of what it is to be a human being – to experience confusion, despair, hope, joy, and all that happens in between. True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. True memoir is a writer acknowledging that he or she is not the only one in the room.
Consider, for example, Jean-Dominique Bauby’s international bestseller The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which later became a major motion picture. It’s a slender book – a mere 132 pages. It’s a terrifying book, written by a man who, in December 1995, suffers a massive stroke that leaves him permanently paralyzed. Bauby is “locked in,” unable to move or speak. It’s his left eye that saves him – his left eye, which he relies on to blink at the slate of letters an assistant shares. Blink by blink, letter by letter, Bauby communicates his story. He was a famous magazine editor, we learn. He is trapped, we learn. But he is still alive – and still, miraculously, hopeful. And even though each word comes slowly, even though he has no words to spare, Bauby makes the explicit effort to tell us about ourselves. He looks up from where he is and acknowledges our presence.
Here Bauby is, in the early pages, communicating the possibility for epistemic peace in the face of an unspeakable tragedy:
You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and adult ambitions.
Here he is, pages later, telling us what survival is, ensuring that we understand that sometimes anger is life-giving, too:
I need to feel strongly, to love and to admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe. A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.
If anyone has earned the right to self-absorption, it is Bauby. He cannot, after all, move or breathe or speak without the help of another, and he does not have long to live. But self-absorption is not his métier. All-consuming anger is not his mood. He does not expect, by the end of his book, to be congratulated for the losses he’s endured. Bauby’s interests extend far beyond the terrible thing that has radically rearranged his life. His ambitions are empathic ones. He writes so that we, his readers, might come to know that imagination is salvation, that we must trust the dreamworks in our heads.
Bauby, in short, wants to leave behind an artful record of what it is to live. He wants us to know hope, to imbibe it, even though his own existence is fragile. If you want more proof of Bauby’s writerly generosity, look at his final passage. He’s staring straight at us:
Does the cosmos contain keys for opening up my diving bell? A subway line with no terminus? A currency strong enough to buy my freedom back? We must keep looking. I’ll be off now.
I have written five memoirs and a new book — Handling the Truth — about how memoir gets made. I teach the form. On an urban campus in Philadelphia, I sit with young people on the verge of adulthood, talking about the lives they’ve lived and the things that have mattered and the personal details from which stories are sprung. The talk, in my classroom, is about transcendence. It’s about making the work bigger than the writer. The record is only the record, I say. Make the details speak for all of us.
It is all too tempting to allow that let-me-tell-my-story instinct to rule, all too easy to spend the time sussing out details, confirming chronologies, giving the whole thing some shine and some sass. Memoirists must succumb to weeks, months, years spent examining (and cross-examining) themselves. But things grow claustrophobic – monochromatic, monologue-esque – when memoirists fail to say to the reader — one way or another— I know that you have lived your joys and sorrows, too. These are my lessons, for you.
Consider, now, Alice Sebold’s Lucky, a book that begins with these lines:
This is what I remember: My lips were cut. I bit down on them when he grabbed me from behind and covered my mouth. He said these words: “I’ll kill you if you scream.” I remained motionless. “Do you understand? If you scream you’re dead.” I nodded my head. My arms were pinned to my sides by his right arm wrapped around me and my mouth was covered with his left.
Sebold will, over the course of her book, render every detail of this brutal, horrifying, unforgivable rape. She will tell us about the police and the hearing and the search for safety. She will share with us her slow return to the world:
I was dancing and falling in love. This time, a boy in Lila’s math class: Steve Sherman. I told him about the rape after we had gone to see a movie and had a few drinks. I remember that he was wonderful with it, that he was shocked and horrified but comforting. He knew what to say. Told me I was beautiful, walked me home and kissed me on the cheek. I think he also liked taking care of me. By that Christmas, he became a fixture at our house.
This is Sebold’s story. It’s a riveting story. Reporting back must have been excruciating, and we deeply empathize; I profoundly do. But to read Lucky is to tunnel in so completely to another’s tragedy that we forget – and are not encouraged to remember – the communality of survivors.
Personal, headline-making, loved by many, Lucky does not, nonetheless, transcend itself. We readers close the book knowing what happened to Sebold. We hold in our hands the blow-by-blow account, a strictly chronological retelling. This is a story about one, told by one. Its lessons – about victimhood, shame, justice, and living forward – may be suggested by the nature of the events, but they are never made explicit. Readers will not find deliberate signifiers here, nor expressly articulated universal truths. It’s not a conversation, in other words, but a tragic (if quite important) story, well-told.
Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites is, for the most part, precisely what its title suggests – a reporting on Christensen’s life story, amplified, along the way, by recipes, or, as the jacket copy puts it, “a narrative in which food – eating it, cooking it, reflecting on it – becomes the vehicle for unpacking a life.” Christensen has an uneasy childhood. She has a raucous, unstable adolescence, a difficult time settling in as a young adult, a wild foray journey into middle age. She marries and loses that marriage. She falls in love with a man almost half her age. She finally publishes the novels she writes, to increasing acclaim.
Throughout it all, food is Christensen’s salvation; it is her mecca, and the narrative’s primary driver. But Christensen knows she’s not the only woman who has ever leaned on food for emotional succor. Look, for example, at these words from the book’s prologue. Food, Christensen is saying, embodies life lessons for us all.
To taste fully is to love fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsible to complexities and truths – good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.
Yeah, we say, when we read this. I’m in. For Christensen has opened a door; she has acknowledged us, has said, in so many words, I may be about to tell you a story that is all about me, but don’t think that I’ve lost sight of the fact that food persuades and maps and consoles you, too. Christensen lifts her story toward something bigger, something signifying. She looks up and glances across her page. I see you, she says. And we feel seen.
I was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours.
It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris.
So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways?
— Janet Potter
Edan Lepucki: Literature doesn’t often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn’t even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day — it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen’s Trouble, and I’m looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
Sonya Chung: My excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to.
More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know — late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film — as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never.
Nick Moran: Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis — natural, spontaneous — but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception — involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I’ve tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It’s been over two years since I read Origins, but I’m still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there’s nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages.
Hannah Gersen: Several years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems — it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain — you get a little thrill from seeing him.
Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it — actually, probably one night — but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend.
Elizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that — I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young — “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” — that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write — write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major.
In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art.
Image Credit: Wikipedia