Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Provoking Empathy in Memoir

One of the potential powers of memoir is to bring readers deep into a life they otherwise would not experience. For someone who has never thought of themselves as an addict, reading a very real and raw depiction of drug addiction is more powerful than reading journalistic reports or statistics. 

However, it is also challenging to read - and write - such a thing. By how we write about our trauma, we can distance our readers - or encourage the further distancing we are prone to doing when we encounter someone else's discomfort and don't want to get close to it. The more difficult the content of the story - violence, extreme isolation, trauma - the more the writer has to do to develop safety so her readers will keep reading and relating to her without exploiting the tale.

One of my students is writing a memoir about a time in her life when everyone she had been close to for decades left her. Because of their misinterpretation of her health, people suddenly disowned her: canceled their friendships, and otherwise cut her out.

The effects, as you can imagine with even the smallest amount of empathy, were devastating.

As we have discovered in our intimate and supportive group working with her on the manuscript, even we who know and sympathize with her are doing our own distancing. It's an unfortunately common human way to subconsciously pretend we don't understand in order to not connect. On the one hand, this is because we don't actually understand - if all your closest friends and family have never given up on you, it's almost impossible to imagine it. Really. No matter how empathic you are.

On the other hand, "I can't even imagine what that was like," is not an uncommon thing for us to say to someone like who has been through horrific experiences. When I hear someone or even myself say this, part of what I hear is:"I don't want to imagine."

We want to keep extreme suffering at a long distance from our seemingly stable and companionable lives. By thinking someone os not like us, by making their experience separate enough, we can keep ourselves safe - or so we think. As if suffering is infectious by some imagination osmosis.

So, as readers, as humans, we can try to relate more. We can try harder. All of us.

As memoir writers, often our stories ache to be told BECAUSE others did not understand or relate or hear us when we are suffering. So from our end, what can we do to help people develop empathy, understand us, and see the whole picture in our story?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

What Versus How

When they begin writing memoir or even reading it, so many people are concerned about the "what", or the content: Can I tell stories about my mom or dad or sister or brother or cousin? I can't really talk about my marriage, right, or my children, or my former job, right?

Starting memoir concerns are most often about these kinds of things - about what to tell, what not to tell. They belies a misunderstanding common in our culture - memoirs are "tell-alls" and what we tell is the hardest part. Will I get sued? Will my mother die? Questions like this are about content.

Content is important, don't get me wrong. Certainly Wild would not have been as strong a seller if her mother hadn't died (to be crude) and Eat Pray Love is leveraged on Gilbert's divorce (again, not to be crude). If those women had chosen to not write about these key aspects of their personal struggles because of fear over libel or dishonor, they would not have written the books at all.

However, what is more important is not what is written, but how it is written.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Right Distance in Memoir

Recently, I've been working with a client on her memoir about becoming psychotic. She is a mental health care provider, which adds an extra depth to the whole experience.

Psychological care providers having experienced mental health challenges is a powerful topic, one strangely un-published about, save a few very notable examples: Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison,  The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks, and Undercurrents by Martha Manning. This client and I have been discussing why that might be the case, and the standard issues apply: professional reputation, respectability, stigma, etc. Of course, all of these challenges are even better countered by a professional taking the risk to tell their tale. But the lineage of stigma is strong. And it goes deeper than just the lack of publication - it also enters the form the tales take once they are written and presented to be published.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Mary Karr: Poetry Meets Memoir

In my search for poetry-as-memoir, I have encountered something I intuitively knew but hadn't quite articulated or had articulated for me:
Most poetry is memoir. 

Highly autobiographical, with lyricism that can get at feeling over fact, poetry and memoir both  prefer senses, experience and feeling. No wonder I like them both so much.

My favorite discovery so far is finding Mary Karr's poetry. I had no idea she wrote poetry. 
And here's the best part - it's really fucking good. From the collection Sinners Welcome:

STILL MEMORY The dream was so deep
the bed came unroped from its moorings,
drifted upstream till it found my old notch  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Perec's Four Kinds of Memory

I recently found a copy of a collection of short non fiction pieces by Georges Perec, a French author who played close to the OuLiPo* school and loved to toy with the edges between fiction and fact.

One essay in particular caught my attention immediately: The Work of Memory. One of the things Perec did in his writing was elevate the worth of daily, mundane tasks, promoting himself to recall them with as much directness as - if not more than - trauma or large significant events. He speaks in this essay about a socialism of memory, in a sense, a non-hierarchical access to the place where collective experience meets personal expression.

In a follow-up, Notes on What I'm Looking For, he refers to four fields of his interest in his work. I love these descriptions - "in one he grows beetroot, in another Lucerne, in a third, maize." All grown by him, but with different focuses of interest. Here are those four fields, also of great interest to memoir readers and writers:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Looking at History Through Memoir: Jim Grimsley

I have read quite a few memoirs/autobiographies about the the civil rights era by black civil rights leaders, most notably John Lewis' Walking With the Wind (which he calls "A Memoir of the Movement" - a fascinating subtitle, for another time). Before now, I hadn't realized how little I knew about the desegregation era in schools in specific. To read my first hint of it "from the inside" from a white man is powerful, though of course, incomplete. I am now seeking out more titles which explore it from the black perspective, as well. In the mean time, please find more about a wonderful, historical book by a white man who happened to be a boy in the "front lines" of integration.

The memoir is Jim Grimsley's How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Racist Lessons of a Southern Childhood. Grimsley happened to grow up in a tiny town in North Carolina, and be high school aged when the Freedom of Choice program went into effect in 1966. The bulk of the memoir covers the time between 66-68, when the Freedom of Choice program gave way to full desegregation.

Grimsley is a fascinating narrator. He was a self-identified young "sissy" - gay but not knowing the word, hemophiliac to such a degree that no other kids touch him and he never plays in gym class. Already an outsider, in other words, and an outsider others are afraid to bully or tease, lest they kill him. He half places and half finds himself making friends with the black kids - first the three girls that come to his all-white high school, then the completely halved population of black and white the first few years of desegregation.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

More Multimedia Memoir and a Word on Natural Metaphor

I cannot get over this cartoon about being date raped.

I want to warn you that it is intense, and visceral, and yet not explicit. She has found the 100% perfect balance between personal and universal, and a naturally-existing metaphor in her own experience: making breakfast for her rapist, being precise about it turning out just right, in order to convince herself she was not raped.

For all of the memoir I read, cartoon memoir are actually likely my favorite. Included in that list are the ever-classics Persepolis and Fun Home, but also lesser-known works like Need More Love and underground classic Blankets.