March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
People sat in the aisles, crowded into the doorways, and filled the back of the room. Clearly, this Friday’s panel at noon was a popular topic; in a nutshell: how to write about our deeply personal and often controversial experiences in a way that benefits others? Or perhaps it was the presence of truth-telling goddesses like Lidia Yuknavitch (author of A Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase,) or Sy Safransky (editor of The Sun) that drew in the masses. In any case, the room was abuzz with anticipation.
The opening remarks of the moderator, Krista Bremer (associate publisher at The Sun), set the tone of transparency when Bremer confessed her ambiguity towards the title of the panel. In memoir writing, it’s not the writer’s job to provide “full disclosure,” Bremer expressed. Memoir is not autobiography nor a dossier; we must omit whatever parts of our lives do not serve the story at hand. It’s not about spilling your guts– that’s for your diary. We must, of course, revise and refine before we have something that’s publishable or useful to the world.
And what about the “making a mess” part of the title? “Memoir thrives on stickiness, ambiguity, nuance,” Bremer continued. “Mess is actually unavoidable… if you’re doing your job–telling the truth– you will make others uncomfortable.”
Yuknavitch agreed. “The title also freaked me out” (especially the making a mess part), she said, before sharing how writing her own memoir sometimes involved “breaking it down about 100 times to get it right.” And a big part of this “getting it right” for Yuknavitch related to the discovery that the form we choose to tell our story through is just as important as the content. She spoke of how saturated we are through our media and as a culture with pathos, “trained to hit the highest force of pathos in 45 minute episodic segments.” How can we challenge ourselves to redistribute pathos differently in our writing, she probed, how can we find the “2014 version”? Indeed, if you’ve read A Chronology of Water, a non-linear memoir full of short, lyrical chapters, you can wee how her ideas about “redistributing pathos” are at play in her work. “Memory itself is a lie,” Yuknavitch went on. “Memory doesn’t work in linear form in our bodies.” She encouraged writers to let go of the concern for, “I must tell the truth!” and instead to liberate ourselves “from the tyranny of truth and shoot for the efficacy of experience.”
Safransky also weighed in on this question of truth in memoir, expressing the importance of holding the intention to adhere as closely to the truth as we can. But he also spoke about how “imposing any conceptual framework on our lives is tricky,” and how elements of truth can be compromised for the sake of trying to impose a narrative arc on our story. Safranksy also disliked the panel’s title, (which made me wonder, who conceived of it?), although he did attempt to address the ‘how to’ part of it, mostly by reminding us to not rush to publish something too early.
The key theme that all of the panelists touched on, however, was the importance of connecting with your readers by touching on universal truths. We are not just writing for ourselves, Safransky emphasized; there are many reasons why we yearn to tell our stories of suffering and we need to allow room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Bremer likened her relationship to writing as “a call to service,” and spoke of the large degree of humility that one needs to “deal with the mess,” whether that “mess” is the ineffability of memory, the temptation to cater to one’s ego, or the vulnerability of exposing one’s self or close relations through their work. One should always treat others with dignity, work to rectify stereotypes, be harder on one’s self than others, and never write to settle scores (she quoted Lopate here). Yuknavitch agreed; you need to “de-ego yourself,” she said, to remember that your story is not the most important story out there, and that’s not why you’re telling it. Instead, “You’re writing your story to bridge to everyone else.”
Cary Tennis shared how he began to reveal intimate and potentially shameful details from his own life through his advice columns (i.e. “Since You Asked” formerly on salon.com), in order to highlight the commonality of his reader’s fears or experiences. Tennis’s writing shifted from writing articles that mostly sought to “entertain,” to more personal and vulnerable writing after he realized he had to stop drinking, and in turn grew experienced listening to others “spill their guts.”
“Memoir is an underground railroad of information about what people really do,” Marion Winik (author of many books, including First Comes Love) said. Of course, she went on, we get that glimpse of raw and real life through novels too, but in memoir, we’re standing behind it saying we did it, which gives it an extra power. Winik reminded us that we can’t control how people are going to react. For those who won’t be able to relate to certain extreme aspects of our story, it might feel like we’re sharing too much information. But for others, it might be exactly what they need to hear. There’s no “objective TMI,” Winik said. “It’s all who’s hearing it.”
Regardless of how any one person might respond to our work, you know that “when you hit the point away from ego and toward all of us together writing the story of how to write about surviving life,” said Yuknavitch, you know you are on the right track. “Everywhere I go now I try to convince people that there’s no such thing as memoir, that it should be called we-moir,” she proclaimed.
And indeed, that is why so many of us love memoir: it helps us touch upon the essential truths of our own experiences; to find commonality with others; and to know that we are not alone. Not every memoir is going to move us, and not everyone is going to approve of what we disclose. But if we keep striving to write what is raw, brave, and true, alongside engaging in the hard work of copiously rewriting, finely crafting, and compassionately rendering our experiences, we may well alight upon that higher calling: to write in service of the world.
Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.