I’ve been a practicing psychologist for more than 40 years and an experience I had recently with a client gave me some insight about memoirs, maybe not about why I chose to write one, but about the value of that kind of project. A kind of retrospective view.
My client had somehow come across my book, read it, and had some questions and thoughts. His first statement to me was, “I thought you were evolved.” I know it can be tempting to see one’s therapist as a person who has arrived, spiked the ball, and done the victory dance. The structure of the relationship kind of supports that falsehood. So I was very happy to disabuse my client of that misimpression, telling him that I believe we are all flawed, all mucking around, doing the best we can; that there is no “evolved,” but that I hoped to be evolving. (Sidebar: A good book to read on this topic is the oldie but goodie When You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him.)
The next thing my client said was that he didn’t think my story merited a full-length book. You can be the judge if you end up reading it, but I knew in that moment—and after the time I’d spent working with him—that my client’s lack of empathy for my history had little to do with me and much more to do with the very significant challenges he faced as a child. When I presented that observation to him, he cried for the first time in his eight decades about the pain of childhood. I think my book humanized me in his eyes. I think it might have been easier for him to own his pain because I was owning mine. Memoirs can do that: remind us that we are all flawed and complicated, all doing the best we can, none of us free from suffering.
I’m not sure I can articulate or even remember the reasons why I chose to write my memoir, what my initial motivation was. I don’t think I fully understood my desire to tell my story. Over the years, I’d read articles and books that try to answer the why-should-you-write-a-memoir question. Not one of them says: It’s because you are a special and unique snowflake and the world is holding its breath and waiting for you to tell your story. Of course, we’re all unique, and each of us has a story to tell. But I’m pretty sure no one wants to read a memoir written by an author motivated primarily by self-importance. The same goes for authors writing to impress readers with the severity of their woe-is-me narratives.
Another subcategory of the genre is the memoir-as-personal-catharsis, i.e. writing as a therapeutic experience. I’m in favor of journaling; in fact it’s something I often recommend to clients. But writing a memoir as a means of screaming into a pillow or crying on a therapists couch? Maybe. But I have a bone to pick with that sort of memoir. My old writing teacher always stressed the importance of fully digesting material—events from one’s life, painful experiences, etc.—in order to acquire the necessary distance to tell a good story: one that has broad appeal rather than one that reads like a diary entry. I was almost 70 when I started writing my memoir. I’d had tons of therapy, had thought about and worked on and turned over the issues from my childhood. I did not set out to write my book as a form of personal therapy. Rather, I wanted to write what I had learned after all that work. But, a strange thing happened when I finished writing. I learned new things about myself; I saw my experience in a different way; I was changed. Sounds like therapy to me. But I think there is an important distinction to be made between writing as a therapeutic undertaking and discovering that the writing process has been therapeutic once you’ve finished.
To me, memoirs that are brave, that reveal our vulnerabilities and deepest humanity are instruments of public service. I come at that from both the personal and the societal viewpoint. If someone does the hard work of examining her experiences and, in the end, grows as a person, that’s a spectacular result. And as people evolve and grow, they are more likely to engage with the world in an enriching way. Really, the only way for societies to evolve is for its individual members to grow. Individual change has a societal ripple.
So, why do we need memoir? In this world, and in our country—where so many of us feel a lack of connection, where the challenges seem so large—writers who dare to tell the brutal, honest truth about their humanity offer us a gift. When I read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I feel despair and rage. When I read The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, I feel admiration and kinship. When I read Darkness VisibleDarkness Visible by William Styron, I feel sorrow. When I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I feel seen. When I read these books, I feel my inner experience reflected back to me. They remind me that we are all part of the human family. They echo the heartache, love, grief, despair, shame, longing, ambition, joy that we all experience. They remind us that we are more alike than different. They make us feel less alone.
Image credit: Unsplash/Cathy Mü.
In the late 1990s, a young writer fresh out of rehab began writing a novel about his escape from a life of addiction. Like his hard-drinking literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the young novelist wanted to set down the facts of his life with searing honesty, but like his heroes, he juiced the truth to make the story more interesting. Some years earlier, for instance, he had been locked up for a few hours on a drunk-driving charge. In his novel, he threw in a punching match with the arresting officer and a bag of crack cocaine and left his protagonist to rot in jail for three months. In another instance, a girl he had known as a kid had been killed in a tragic train accident, and in his novel, he wrote his protagonist into her story and added a scene in which the whole town blames him for her death.
But when he tried to sell this thinly disguised autobiographical novel, it was turned down by 17 major publishers. In fact, his novel might still be sitting in a drawer had not Nan Talese, a big-name editor at Doubleday, one of the houses that had originally rejected it, offered to publish it instead as a memoir called A Million Little Pieces. By 2006, after Oprah Winfrey put the young author James Frey on TV, his novel-turned-memoir had sold 3.5 million copies.
A decade after Oprah dragged Frey through the mud on national television, memoirist Mary Karr is still pissed at him. Karr, who has chronicled her own battles with addiction, says she smelled a rat in Frey’s tale all along, but what sticks in her craw is the brazenness of his deception. “He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for months, when he never served a day,” Karr writes in her new craft book, The Art of Memoir. “He set out to fool people.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Frey wrote a mediocre autobiographical novel and a savvy editor saw that, given how the modern publishing industry is built, his unsellable work of fiction had the all makings of a hit memoir.
As a literary form, memoir dates back at least to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but as Julie Rak reminds us in her book, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, it is only recently that writers who weren’t already well-known began turning nonfiction versions of their life stories into bestsellers. Which is not to say that writers weren’t retailing their life stories with great success long before the so-called “memoir boom” ignited in the early 1990s. As Frey himself notes in an interview with The Guardian shortly after the Oprah dust-up, many classic novels of the 20th century might today be published as memoir. “I mean, the idea that The Sun Also Rises is not about Hemingway’s life,” he says, “or On the Road is not about Kerouac’s life, or anything ever written by Bukowski or Celine or Henry Miller is not about those men’s lives, is a ridiculous idea.”
Frey then adds:
What’s interesting is that On the Road was going to be published as nonfiction, and they altered it [because] they were worried about legal ramifications. And because at the time fiction was much more popular than nonfiction. For me it was almost the opposite, y’know — nonfiction is much more popular now.
Whether or not this is literally true of On the Road, Frey is right that readers have long been drawn to autobiographical tales of authors’ youthful misadventures. What has changed is that we no longer require these writers to don the respectable veil of fiction — and in fact, as book buyers, we would rather they didn’t.
As writers of literary fiction increasingly find they have to traffic in high-concept premises or be satisfied with poorly paid critical respect, a writer with a personal, character-driven story to tell is more likely to cash in if he or she can claim the story is true. Thus, we get James Frey and an ever-growing shelf of “fauxmoirs” like Love and Consequences, a 2008 work of fiction about race and gang life in South Central, L.A., by Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman who changed her name to Margaret B. Jones and went on radio speaking with an affect so readers would believe her novel was a memoir.
Critics of the modern memoir tend to credit its rise to a culture of narcissism and navel-gazing among the young, or less pejoratively, to a yearning for authenticity, a reality hunger born of a blurring of truth and fiction in public life. In reality, the growth in popularity of the form has as much, or more, to do with the restructuring of the publishing industry than it does any cultural shift. As Rak notes in Boom!, the advent of cheap paperbacks in the postwar years not only created new markets for popular detective, romance, and sci-fi novels, but also for quickie nonfiction books about a person in the news. These could be produced quickly and cheaply, with a sensibility more in keeping with the news business than that of the stodgier book business, and were sold not in bookstores, but alongside their “pulp fiction” brethren in drug stores and train station newsstands.
Thus, for a decade or two after World War II, American publishing operated along two parallel tracks. Older, more prestigious publishing houses produced high-quality hardback volumes of nonfiction about ex-presidents and other grandees alongside literary fiction written for an educated elite who shopped at independent bookstores. At the same time, a far less prestigious book industry sold pulp fiction and nonfiction to middle-class and working-class readers who bought their books where they bought their newspapers and magazines — in drug stores and train stations.
These two business models collided, however, when publishing firms began merging in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2001, by Rak’s count, there were 1,250 publishing mergers, subsuming literally thousands of small, often family-run publishing firms into a handful of multinational conglomerates, which were in many cases owned by even larger media companies. In this mad shuffle, prestigious literary houses got swallowed up by the same companies that bought out firms producing cheaper books, blurring the institutional line between “literary” and “pulp.”
While the merger frenzy injected fresh capital into publishing, it brought with it a corporate-style focus on high profit margins, creating ever more pressure to produce bestsellers. At the same time, publishing houses began to publish the hardback and paperback editions of the books they produced, further diluting the distinction between “quality” and “cheap” books, which helped give birth to a new species of book, the “trade paperback” — the form, not so incidentally, in which most bestselling memoirs take off.
As publishing was evolving in the postwar years, so were bookstores and media companies. Fifty years ago, good bookstores were rare outside major cultural centers, but by the early 1980s bookstore chains had invaded malls across the country, draining business from the drug stores and newsstands that had sold pulp books in the past. Now, not only were publishers producing literature and pulp, but readers were finding them in the same store, sometimes shelved side by side. Meanwhile, as newspapers began their long descent into digital irrelevance, the book page was often one of the first casualties, and TV and radio became prime drivers of book sales. Since a talking head reviewing a book is deadly boring, hosts instead began inviting authors onto their shows to talk about their books — an exercise made exponentially more entertaining when a book’s author and protagonist are the same person.
This, then, was the state of play in 1989 when Tobias Wolff, author of several respectfully reviewed story collections and a prize-winning novella, published his first memoir This Boy’s Life, which became a national bestseller and a hit movie starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio. A few years later, Susanna Kaysen hit the bestseller lists with Girl, Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurtzel bared her navel on the cover of Prozac Nation, and by 1995, when Karr came out with her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, the gold rush was on.
You will find little of this history in The Art of Memoir, but it is there, albeit subtextually, in the defensive crouch Karr adopts toward critics of her chosen genre. Boiled down to its essence, Karr’s defense of memoir rests on her belief in an artful admixture of truth and storytelling moxie. Karr readily admits that no memoirist can be expected to perfectly recall dialogue spoken decades earlier, and that even if she could, the very act of choosing one detail over another distorts the objective truth of the events in question. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.”
Still, she has zero time for memoirists who don’t aim for the truest versions of their life stories they are capable of telling. Speaking of another writer who admits to embellishing details in nonfiction, Karr is blunt in her disdain: “It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”
This is both funny and true, but while Karr appears to be addressing the largest knock on memoirs, her book neatly sidesteps the deeper, structural problems with the genre. Though she doesn’t use the term, The Art of Memoir, which grew out of MFA courses Karr teaches at Syracuse University, focuses on what one might loosely call creative nonfiction. This term means different things to different people, but if it has any practical meaning in a publishing sense, it denotes a work of nonfiction conceived and written exclusively by its author, not dreamed up or shaped by an agent or editor.
But while the creative nonfiction model may be the one taught in university classrooms, it isn’t how most commercial memoirs are actually produced. With rare exceptions, novels are submitted to agents and editors only after they are finished, while nonfiction books, including memoirs, are typically bought based on a proposal. A book proposal can take many forms, but generally it includes some sample chapters, an outline of the book, and often a discussion of who is likely to read it and why. In other words, while novelists arrive in the publishing marketplace with a finished product, memoirists show up with a business plan, which has itself typically been heavily shaped and edited by a literary agent.
In my reporting in the publishing world, I have sat with agents whose job it is to trawl the blogosphere and tap their personal networks with an eye out for someone whose zeitgeisty blog or proximity to the pop culture spotlight might net a book contract. In some cases, these people created the blog or instigated their brush with fame precisely in order to cash in on it. In other cases, the would-be memoirists have no notion of themselves as potential protagonists of a book, and are stunned to learn they might be. Either way, the agent helps the memoirist craft a proposal, offering advice on how to structure the narrative, how to position it in the current market, and, if need be, providing a ghostwriter to write the actual book.
This, the old-school pulp mentality that produces so many of those strange quickie books that appear and then disappear from bookstore shelves, is the real enemy of the creative nonfiction Karr so avidly defends in The Art of Memoir. Because whether its practitioners like to admit it or not, contemporary memoir, to a far greater degree than contemporary fiction, is an agents’ and editors’ medium. Readers, even those who couldn’t care less how publishing works, sense this, and are put off by it.
When the consolidation of the publishing industry lumped pulp publishers in with prestige literary houses, it gave literary artists like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr access to a lucrative mass audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also forced them, and more particularly the writers who came after them, to play by the rules of the pulp world, which emphasizes extremes of experience, often involving emotional or physical trauma, coupled with a yearning for middle-class normality.
Think for a moment about the authors whose books set the memoir boom in motion. Wolff and Karr were academics. Frank McCourt taught high school. Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of a famous economist at MIT. Any educated American reader could identify with these people, even aspire to be them. In their books, they reveal horrific trauma they endured in their past, but what made their books so moving, and what moved so many units, was that they survived, thanks to a mix of smarts, pluck, and a deep yearning for a respectable middle-class life. In one way or another, all these books recast the American Dream in a fable-like form — except that these fables were true.
In the mainstream imagination, where literary and pulp sensibilities meet, the fact that the stories are true matters enormously. Wolff has written heartbreaking fiction about growing up poor with his half-crazy mother, including one of my all-time favorite stories, “Firelight,” collected in the 1992 Best American Short Stories, but it wasn’t until he used real names that Hollywood came calling. If his story is true, and Wolff really survived the childhood he describes in This Boy’s Life, then whatever life lessons he might have to impart are also real, and I as a reader can apply them to overcome whatever traumas I might have suffered.
This trick was easy enough to pull off for these early trailblazers, whose lives fit the template without too much embellishment. But once creative nonfiction left the rarefied sphere of literary publishing, where the author is king, it entered a rougher, pulp-minded world whose books look the same as their more literary cousins, are sold in the same stores, and follow much the same narrative playbook, but are partly or wholly created by publishing professionals who know a money-spinning formula when they see it.
In this world, the agent notes that the cooking blogger was single when she started and is now married and tosses out, just as a possibility, the title “Table for Two: How a Single Girl Cooked Her Way Into the Heart of the Man of Her Dreams.” Your recipes are great, he explains, but the book needs an arc, a journey the reader can travel. In this world, an editor asks a newly successful entrepreneur if by any chance he had a overbearing father who belittled his ideas. Was he dyslexic as a child? A teen drug user with a rebellious streak? Before long the entire genre is tarred with the pulp brush, and even the most earnest creative nonfictionist knows he needs at least one heroin overdose in his past because a merely unhappy childhood, no matter how artfully rendered, equals a life of quiet literary desperation.
And then, into this world, walks the next James Frey.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
I am on a memoir kick. In the last couple of months I’ve plowed through Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and I recently started — not kidding — a book called The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter, by Holly Robinson.
I read too quickly, and I often find that what I retain a few weeks after I’ve gobbled a book, is an image or moment that somehow encapsulates the work — the essence that stays behind when everything else fades. Suck City is a resonant, haunting story of how an abandoned son comes to accept the hugely flawed humanity of his skid-row dad. The image I hoard from that book is of the author walking down a Boston street with his “gnomelike,” almost comically diminished father — “cross-eyed, stiff gait, smaller and smaller.” I can’t stop thinking of it: the father—so grandiose, so damaged—tottering crookedly down the sidewalk, taking credit for the trees that line the street and the steps that anchor his building.
The Liar’s Club is also about an unmoored parent and a turbulent childhood, and nobody who has read it can soon forget the terrifying sight of the author’s crazed, wasted, theatrically immoderate mother hovering in her daughters’ bedroom doorway with her “wild corona of hair,” brandishing a shiny kitchen knife. But I think back to a more intimate tableau: of the family eating dinner together each night in the parents’ massive bed, facing opposite walls, “our backs together, looking like some four-headed totem, our plates balanced on the spot of quilt between our legs.” The image is so familiar and sad and touching at the same time, and it says everything about how our weird family arrangements can break us, but also make us who we are.
Families are ecosystems unto themselves, and since I have written a book about bees and humans, I now see signs of symbiosis everywhere — flowers, bees, people, animals, families, all the dependencies that go into making a life. I’m particularly interested in how people coexist with pets, and that’s how I ran across Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter. It is also about, yup, a kid coming to terms with her unusual childhood, though as far as parental pathologies go, you could do worse than suffering through your father’s gerbil-husbandry fixation (the author’s Navy-commander father decides to stake the family’s future on raising gerbils). It’s a fun book, sad as well, though not so vivid and thought-provoking and lyrical as the two I read before. But then, those books don’t have gerbils: 8,700 of them. Now there’s an image.
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In our benighted age, which is as scornful of navel-gazing as it is desperate to find new avenues for its pursuit, memoirs and autobiographical writing proliferate and in proliferating incite bitterness. Long personal pieces on, for example, Salon or Slate are usually accompanied by several hundred comments, mostly variations on “I can’t believe someone got paid for this” or “I hate you.”
In many respects I’m as likely to be a hater as the next embittered internet user, but I think memoirs are nice. The Liars’ Club, Hons and Rebels, Goodbye to All That–I like me a memoir, you might say. The obvious caveat is if it is crappy. What I found so bewildering about the James Frey controversy was not that he had made things up, but that people had enjoyed his prose enough to feel personally betrayed upon learning of the author’s (rather transparent) perfidy. I would rather read forty-five leaked, unedited Twilights than one authentic, inauthentic Frey.
That said, I’d like to offer up a set of memoirs I feel that only a really first-class hater could malign. They are by Beverly Cleary, one of the architects of post-war American childhood, without whom we would have no Beezus or Ramona or Klickitat Street. In addition to being the hero of children (now grown-ups, although I hope children still read Ramona books), she’s also a fine memoirist. A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet are my personal cure for winter blues or bad news or just generally feeling sort of droopy and dépaysé.
The first book, A Girl From Yamhill, documents Cleary’s childhood in Depression-era Oregon, from early years in a farm town, to schooldays in Portland, to her departure for junior college in California. In My Own Two Feet, Cleary goes to junior college, goes to Berkeley, falls in love, graduates library school, and starts a career that included a wartime stint in a barracks library. Yamhill is the better of the two, I think, but only by a minute measure. Perhaps it’s the influence of her long experience of writing for children, but there is something very immediate and compelling in the written memories of her own childhood.
Cleary maintains elegant balance on all fronts–she is warm without being sentimental, honest without being maudlin, probing without being neurotic, frank without being prurient. She writes about moving from small town to big city, the specter of pioneer ancestors, the pathos of only children, restless mothers, crooked teeth, perverted uncles, gloomy boyfriends, and tonsillitis. She writes about discovering the pleasure of reading and of writing. She writes about the uncertain times, her own uncertain future, and the miracle of California and junior college–begun with a solo trip on the Greyound bus, five dollars in her stockings.
It sounds appallingly smarmy, but when I read these books they give me a little national kick. I don’t get misty when I see a bald eagle on a gentleman’s tank top, but I have a soft spot for well-told narratives from across our geographic and cultural landscape. I like to read about the spunky women who went to college and made dresses out of old shirts and dreamed of writing children’s books.
Cleary writes on the familiar beauties of Mount Hood and the unique revelation of California, where avocados are eaten off the tree and Crab Louie abounds. She writes about San Francisco, which might be the most beautiful city in the world. She writes of driving over the Bay Bridge, newly opened to traffic, and of seeing the unfriendly scrub of Siskiyou County for the first time. These are books that make you feel the American West right in your bones.
I first read these when I had mostly outgrown Ramona but yearned for more Beverly Cleary. Maybe it’s because I was a young adult (as in Young Adult Fiction) before the advent of sixth-grade sexting, but I found these books meaningful even seventy years after the girlhood they described. I just read them again, and I’d like to think that they transcend time–that they’re just right for precocious little girls, ornery millenials, the young and old alike.