Sunday, October 29, 2017

Contradictions in Memoir

As I read Diane Rehm's memoir, which I mentioned in a previous post, one thing I notice is how ready she is to admit inconsistent thoughts and feelings. In truth, we are filled with such inconsistencies, but often we are content to tell ourselves that we feel what we want to believe we feel or, more simply, what we feel most of the time.

Actually, though, our minds are a jumble of thoughts, which tumble into consciousness willy-nilly. This fact may not cause so much trouble were it not for our belief that it shouldn't be so -- that we should be consistent. 

I used to teach English to college freshmen, the main curriculum of which, I'm sure many remember well, is how to write a composition. Mostly, this means a paper that makes an argument leading to a valid conclusion. I would often write things like, "Contradiction?" or "How does this follow?" in the margins of students' papers. They were supposed to learn how to be consistent. If a student was arguing for gun control, announcing that he had two guns under his bed was acceptable only if he explained why in a way consistent with his main thesis. But suppose he both loved and hated guns? There wasn't much room to write a paper about that -- and yet, wouldn't that be much more interesting?

So, partly, this desire to be consistent, or the belief that one should be, is the result of people like me  training young minds to avoid the actual contradictory nature of experience -- especially internal experience. But it is also the result of the need for identity. We want to take a stand, to have a point of view, because it helps define us in ways we want to be defined and seen by others.

This may be one reason it is so hard to write an honest memoir. We always thought we were such-and-so kind of person, but when we sit down to write, lots of thoughts and feelings that contradict our images of ourselves begin to bubble up. What we do with that determines whether we have a memoir worth reading. 

Why We Read Memoir

Previously, I discussed why we might write a memoir. Here, I want to look at the other side of the equation: why we might want to read one.

First of all, we need to relate to the writer. If the writer is not famous -- in other words, his or her only claim to fame is the actual writing of the book we are reading -- this is especially important. How is the writer like me, we want to know. Does s/he have a problem similar to mine that has been explored, clarified, or resolved through writing? What can I learn about my own situation? (And what I learn might only be the realization that I am not alone with my difficulties.)

But even if the writer is well-known for other endeavors, we still need to relate to him or her. Even if the person's fame is beyond what the ordinary person can ever imagine, we want to know that s/he is human, that he or she has foibles, and vulnerabilities. And we don't want to hear a gripe list -- how others have wronged this person while s/he has never made any mistakes.

I read a memoir some years ago. I don't remember the book's or author's name, but I remember the content. Years ago, this now-elderly woman tells, when she was young and living in France, she'd had an affair with Sartre. This was no fame-by-association memoir, however. It was a complaint -- a very loud one. She was a student at the school where Simon de Beauvoir taught, and she claimed that de Beauvoir seemed to favor her and befriend her but in fact, she was procuring young girls for Sartre. I have no idea how true this is, but it's certainly the way this woman experienced it. And now, many decades later, she still resented her treatment.

There's a certain dirty-laundry aspect of this kind of tale that makes it a good read. It also has a shirttail aspect: that is, no one would read a book like this if the other participants in the story weren't famous. But how much more interesting such a book would be if there were a bit of introspection.  The author spends the whole book trashing two people who were in the intellectual vanguard of a whole generation.  But the wider significance of her tale is never discussed.  

It can't be denied that desire for titillation offered by such a tale can be a reason to read a memoir. But it isn't the best or highest reason. The writer who learns something about himself or herself as a result of writing is the writer whom we as readers also learn from. This is where the motives for writing and reading a memoir intersect.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Writing a Memoir for the Best Reason

As we get older, many of us want to write a memoir -- to press into stone before it is too late what our lives were about, what was significant. But what was significant to us as writers may not be what would be significant to readers. Writing a good memoir, it seems, requires some of the same empathy that writing a good novel does: we need to ask what is universal about experience and frame our narrative in such a way that others can see themselves even in a tale whose facts are very different from those of our own lives.

So, a good memoir requires an intersection of the writer's reasons for writing and the reader's reasons for reading. I'm going to talk about the first in this post, and in a subsequent post, I'll talk about the second. And in talking about the first, I mean to discuss not only what a writer's motive should ideally be but what it actually is in various cases.

When I was younger, a certain man in my spiritual community had developed Parkinson's. He was a big, strapping man, and he so disliked his new, dependent condition that he was often resentful and uncooperative when his wife tried to help him. In the end, unable to deal with both the difficult medical issues and the changes in personality due to her husband's disease, she moved him to a long-term care facility

He hated it! He wanted to go home again. But it was not going to happen.

I had known this man before disease struck as both generous and wise, and, sorry to see him trapped in a situation over which he had no control, I began to visit him. He told me that he wanted to write a memoir of the time he'd spent in Africa when he was young. He had been an aid worker and also climbed Kilimanjaro. He couldn't perform the physical act of writing anymore -- and this was before the various digital aids were available -- but he proposed that he would record his experiences on tape. Would I be willing to transcribe them?

I saw this project as something this man desperately needed for his survival in a situation  where so little of what he had been remained. He would assert that, indeed, his life had meaning -- both to him and others. So, while I didn't have a lot of free time, I acceded to his request, suspecting that my services would in fact never be needed anyway.

In fact, although I visited my friend several more times, it wasn't long before his mind was so confused that recording a memoir was the last thing that would have occurred to him. The final time I visited, he didn't even recognize me. Kilimanjaro and Africa had blown away with the wind.

Did the world lose a good book because someone waited too long to write it? I can't know the answer to that. But I do believe that the motive to put your life on paper before it's too late isn't enough to make a compelling read -- assuming you are expecting readers other than family and friends. And this is true even if your experiences were unusual or interesting. 

What motive is necessary, then, to create a good book?  I'm reading two memoirs currently, One is On My Own by Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host. The other is The Way Around: Finding my Mother and Myself among the Yanomami bv David Good, the son of an anthropologist and a woman in the Amazonian tribe his father was studying. It's easy to see how different these books are, and I'll talk about that in the next post, when I discuss why people might want to read a memoir. I've barely started both books, but I think the titles and first pages give an idea of why these authors took up their pens.

Although Diane Rehm is near the end of her life, she didn't just want to record her experiences so they wouldn't be lost. The title, On My Own, gives a hint of her main aim. She wants to record how she is growing, changing as a result of having to live life without her long-time, recently deceased husband. What is she learning or has she learned from this?

David Good is not well known and he is only in his thirties. Unlike Rehm's book, his would not have been published had he not had an extraordinary story to tell. And yet, his motive, it seems to me, is not so different from Rehm's. He is looking for himself -- or, rather, for aspects of himself that he has not accessed yet. It's about self-discovery.

I've heard other memoirists say as much -- that you don't write about what you know about yourself but you write in order to find out something you didn't know. Your book is the result.    

Friday, October 6, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro -- Congrats!

So nice to see something good happening in the world. So good to see someone as deserving as Ishiguro win the Nobel Prize.

I heard clips of several of the many interviews he did yesterday. He talked about the many themes of his work -- how people miss opportunities, how they lie to themselves in order to continue in what would otherwise be intolerable situations.  His work is varied and always profound. He said that, although he was raised in the UK, he grew up in a Japanese household, so he saw things through Japanese eyes. Sounds like a thesis for some graduate student somewhere.

Congratulations to a great writer, and, maybe more important these days, a good man.