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Peter Brown Hoffmeister

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The Wicked Art of Memoir Making

Posted: 11/08/11 01:32 PM ET

One of my co-workers hates my book. She's made that clear. She dislikes it so much that she whispers derisive comments about it behind my back. She complains about being obligated to attend my readings, but then never shows up. It's not just a personal thing with me though, she hates more than my book. She hates the entire memoir genre.

Why?

She feels that memoirs are bitter and angry. Whiny. Mean.

About female memoirs, I once heard her say, "I don't want to hear about one more girl being abused."

And she has a point.

Memoirs are often written by the spurned lover, the abused child, the disenfranchised group member. Some memoir writers haven't dealt with their pasts, using the print medium to get even. Think of billionaire Paul Allen's recent book, Idea Man, in which Allen alleges that Bill Gates was a money-hungry thirteen year old and that Gates later plotted against Allen while Allen had cancer.

Nasty stuff.

But for people who love the memoir genre, this is part of the draw.

Memoirs are wicked pieces of art. "Wicked" as defined as malicious, mischievous, severe, or distressing.

When I read Running with Scissors, I was distressed. The pedophile in the backyard shed distressed me. But as strange as it sounds, I'm happy Augusten Burroughs wrote that scene. To leave it out would have changed the scope of the entire book, made his parents look less neglectful or crazy.

And this brings me to my parents.

Should I have written about them, about the worst three years in their lives? Should I have written about our family falling apart as I got expelled from school after school and ended up living in a Greyhound Bus station?

A good son wouldn't. But then again, good sons don't write memoirs.

Alexandra Fuller's mother calls Fuller's book Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight "that awful book." Never mind that Fuller's book is one of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling memoirs of all time.

Does it then become easier if the parents are no longer alive?

Take, for example, Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Eggers parents passed away before he wrote a single word. And did that help?

No. Because he had to write about his sister, Beth. She was part of his story. Eggers' didn't intend to hurt her. He had a story to tell, with a new voice and a new perspective. The fallout was tragic, literally, but that was never Eggers' intention.

Siblings do not want to be in books, for the most part. I get the sense that Amy Sedaris might be okay with being a character in David's stories, but what about Lisa or Paul?

Does Paul want to be viewed eternally as a man with fists the size of tangerines, a man who cusses every other word, who gets beat up by "beefy" dudes at bars?

Probably not.

And did my siblings want to be included in my memoir?

Only one of them. One in five.

Memoirs tell the story of a single time period. In scene. In the moment. The truth as a writer can best remember. And these books fail when they try to tell the whole story, from early childhood to now.

As my editor at Soft Skull, Denise Oswald, said to me: No one wants to know when you lost your last baby tooth, or what your favorite color is.

So memoirs are about that one story. That particular emotional and gritty time.

When Alice Sebold wrote Lucky, she wasn't writing to expose her parents' sad marital relationship. Instead, she planned on telling her own story of survival, of injury and recovery. And Sebold is one of the bravest writers I know.

Considering the larger landmass of nonfiction, it's much easier to write narrative that isn't personal, that doesn't cover difficult, emotional detritus. But as much as I admire someone like John McPhee, someone who can write an entire book-length work about oranges, I can't say that he's as brave as Sebold. Nor is he as wicked.

For would-be memoir writers, the questions are: How much do you like hurting people? And is your story important enough?

Difficult questions to answer.

But, sometimes, after publication, the people who should be hurt are not. The writer asks herself difficult questions, agonizes over the answers, then prints the book anyway. And the results are unexpected.

Take, for example, Mary Karr's mother. After being portrayed as crazy and dangerous in The Liar's Club, Karr's mother told multiple interviewers that she liked being in the book. She said she was "famous" now.

That's what I like to imagine for all memoir characters. I see them riding in cars, smiling, reveling in being known. Being eternal now. On the printed page.

 

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