Sometimes you don’t know what you want to say until you open your mouth, and out it comes. I wasn’t planning to write something tonight; it’s been a busy weekend, and I’ve got lots to do. But, I was trolling the news sites, and I saw a blurb saying that Frank McCourt, the fellow who wrote Angela’s Ashes, had died, and I decided to have a little spiel about memoirs.
I haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, and while I’m told it’s a fine book, it’s not exactly on my list of works to read. Personally, I’m leery of memoirs. They often strike me as a literary Ourobouros, a case of the author swallowing their lives whole to digest them again and pass them into text. In the process, I find that often, the author is too on the nose, revealing overtly would should be done obliquely. That, however, is my own prejudice showing, and there are some memoirs that I heartily recommend to people at the drop of a hat, chiefly Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. You’ll rarely find horror so amusing, or poignantly written without artifice or hearing the author hammering the keys. (This is intended as a compliment, in case you were wondering.)
Every time I see a memoir on the shelf, or am temporarily convinced to let go of my misgivings and try another one, I always think of the famous Tolstoy quote that begins Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In recent years, with the onslaught of reality programming and 24-hour news, it’s become more difficult to believe that. The stuff of scandal and shock has become commonplace and repetitive. To make its mark now, a memoir must be more powerful than simple titillation or the tragedy du jour. It must be true, it must be different, and it must have meaning. What did you learn? What costs did you pay? Why does this speak to me, and what is it saying? All these questions have to be answered when you write personal essays or memoirs, explicitly or otherwise.
One of my friends is working on a memoir. In fact, she received a couple of grants to help write this memoir, grants which allowed her to travel recently to South America for three weeks to do research. We’ve discussed her book, and what I find most refreshing about her work in progress is not the locale, nor necessarily the overarching theme of her book, but the fact that her work is focused inward to get out. In the end, I’ve come to believe that my reticence to delve into memoir is rooted in my perception that memoirs are too often a literary excursion into narcissism, a way to explicitly frame the universe in our own terms. In my friend’s case, she actually has a different goal in mind, and has managed to find a way to express that goal in terms of her own life experiences. Sure, you can argue that this is just narcissism in a different form, but even if it is, she’s at least reaching for something different, and I applaud her for it. I can’t wait to read it.
More than anything, I think a memoir’s real purpose should be to reach for something higher, even if through indirect illumination. Every author, like every human that ever was or will be, is the center of his or her own universe; the difference with authors is that we can share our universes with other people, even if just for a moment, and let those people see through other sets of eyes than their own. When we choose to reveal our lives, our perceptions of those lives and even the lies we tell about them, there needs to be something more there than self-promotion.
Showing people our mistakes, if that’s what we’re doing, is only helpful if we understand what the mistakes were and why we made them. Light is only helpful when you point it in the right direction. Before using the pitiless gaze of the memoirist on your life and your experiences, be sure you understand what you’ll be illuminating…and why it’s so important for others to see what’s there.