The Memoirist

I’m a memoirist. That’s a clunky word, right? It’s hard to say. It seems like a bastardization of the English language. Constructed for convenience—akin to inventing new verbs like “strategize” or “dialogue.” Could it be a modern word, created to accommodate the billions of bloggers, just like me, who chronical the minutia of their lives? It’s a real word. I looked it up on the Merriam-Webster website.

One who writes a memoir. Like essayist… or journalist: one who keeps a journal? Are there any other reading genre’s where you just add -ist to define the writer? A fictionist?

I’ve been at this for years. Four years! I’ve been blogging about my life. Remembering my past, yesterday and beyond. Trying to mine nuggets of wisdom from my experiences. Trying to prove that along this journey, I’m actually learning something.

When I first started, when I was nervous and insecure, and still afraid to share the secrets of my life, I went looking for help—I wanted a confident hand to guide me. I met a college professor at a bar. She taught English composition. I asked if she would read my blog and give some feedback. I sought out a friend of Susan’s: an editor and writer, a winner of contests, I asked her what she thought of my output.

The three of us were interested in improving our craft, each contemplating publication. We gathered in a bar, repeatedly, to talk about writing. A writers’ group—reading and feedback. Three people who didn’t know each other well. The connection was our writing. We took home printed versions of each other’s essays and stories, we brought back marked up copies.

The group was short-lived. We might have met six times. The college professor had too much going on in her life. She couldn’t commit to the meetings, to the reading assignments, the commenting. The remaining two of us, feeling inappropriate, shut it down. Getting together to share the intimate details of our lives through writing was too much like a date. People would talk. Maybe even our spouses. We killed our group.

I can’t say what those two women took away from the meetings. I didn’t have much to offer. I felt over my head, out of my depth. My observations seemed comparatively pedestrian. I did my best, treating my reviews like English 302 homework. Wringing my hands, struggling to come up with some critical advice that might help these writers so much farther along the experience curve.

So, what did I get from our meetings? Certainly, they offered minor tweaks to my composition, my punctuation. They pointed out where I over explained. And my writing improved marginally as a result. But something else I learned is the reason I’m writing this essay today.

As a memoirist, I was cautioned against attributing my adult perspectives to the child-version of me portrayed in my stories. The grade-school-me didn’t have the big thoughts I write about.  Really, the college-age-me didn’t either. Those thoughts and connections were formed after the fact. Long after the events that I wrote about.

My goal was to be an authentic memoirist. I didn’t want to embellish my stories for impact or humor. I learned that it’s fine to reflect back on the events that shaped me, but I shouldn’t imply that the little-me had these thoughts in the moment. That would be inauthentic.

It’s dangerous ground for the memoir writer. If we intend to be accurate, truthful and believable, we can’t suggest that our seven-year-old-self saw a connection between our parents’ insecurities and our own difficulties making friends on the playground. Those are thoughts that develop over our lifetime. They reveal themselves slowly as we age and mature.

Right now, I’m reading Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky. Susan grabbed the book for me at the library. The cover and the story-blurb made it seem like the memoir of a prepper. One of those people getting their ducks in a row for the coming apocalypse. Bomb shelters, years of stored food, ammo, booze. Enough duct tape to seal off every window in the house. That book would be perfect for me—prepperdom is one of my guilty pleasures. I was post-apocalyptic before it even became a genre. Disaster Preparedness isn’t like that. It’s a memoir of a little girl’s realization that her parents are getting a divorce.

I say I’m reading this book. What I mean is I’ve already read a third of the book, but I’m done. Havrilesky is an accomplished author. She’s worked at salon.com. She’s a regular in the New York Times magazine. She’s even been profiled on NPR’s All Things Considered. She’s the real deal. A writer I should look up to, try to emulate.

But she’s repeatedly guilty of what I learned to avoid in my first year as a writer. She writes about the deep mental connections she made as a child of nine, as a child of six, and even as a three-year-old. I can’t remember a single event that happened when I was three, but Harilesky writes about her afternoons spent with her mother. How it felt to have her mother all to herself while her older sister was off at preschool. She describes what they talked about, what they did, how her mother sounded when she sang. She even writes about feeling relaxed as they lazed away their days.

This is pervasive throughout the book (the part I read anyway). Childhood-Heather was more aware than most adults. I can’t read the book. Every few pages I look up from my reading thinking, “she can’t possibly remember that.”

Now I’m contemplating the fairness of the publishing industry. This is where I wrote and then deleted a long rant about how Heather Havrilesky is published by the Penguin Group while I spent months self-publishing my book on Createspace. How Heather Havrilesky, who creates stories incorporating the memoirist’s cardinal sin of projecting her adult-knowledge on a little girl is blurbed by the San Francisco Chronicle and Elle Magazine. I’m blurbed (literally) by “a bunch of people no one knows.” It says so right on the back cover of my book. The misdeed I learned as verboten in my homegrown, small-town writers’ group a year into my writing career is repeated time and again in Havrilesky’s highly acclaimed memoir. **

Am I bitter? Yes, a little.

I’ve accepted my fate as a self-published author. Would I have preferred to be picked up by a prestigious publishing house? Yes, I would.

Have you noticed that I keep asking questions and then answering them? Havrilesky does this too, and it kind of bugs me. I’ve done my best and I’m proud of my achievement. But I have a hard time seeing others rewarded for doing no better.

So, for all of you bloggers who read the Other Stuff, I read your blogs too. I read about the events and the memories that have shaped who you are. And so I say, congratulations. You are, just like I am, talented enough to be published by Penguin.

** Hmm, Half an hour later and I’m thinking this is sort of mean. Trying to consider my motivation. Jealousy. Something else… Fodder for comments.

27 thoughts on “The Memoirist

  1. Ha! Publishing business is definitely not fair. Many other businesses aren’t… But anyway. Thank you for making me feel normal. I thought there was something wrong with me because of some things I saw other people write about. Things they so clearly remember from back when they were two. Yes, I remember a scene or two from when I was 4 or 7, but the feelings and the psychological conclusions come from the present me. I did not think in these terms back then.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know. I fell silly saying “it’s not fair” but it isn’t, dammit. My expectations of memoirists are pretty inconsistent. There are other writers (David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs) I’ve let slide through their embellishments. But this book touched a nerve and it might be because the quality of writing wasn’t as high as some of the others who get a pass from me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jeff..I’m glad I found you and your writing here..I’ve always enjoyed conversations with you and reading your storiesI read a while ago that the job you took wasn’t for you.. anything else happening? Hope you and your family are well and that your learning ” the lessons” that come your way..keep in touch, if you can; now and then

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sandra, I’m happy you found me here as well. I’ve completely abandoned Google+. There are just too many platforms to manage and something had to give. My life has been quite the rollercoaster lately, but I’ve kept a pretty good attitude about it. Things are definitely on the up-swing.

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  3. I do apply adult perspectives to some of the things I write about how my childhood experiences but I don’t mean to imply that I had those perspectives at the time. It sounds like this author may have violated another rule of writing: Show, don’t tell. Let the reader draw from themselves the parallels between the instability of your parents’ relationship and your struggles on the playground. I have to admit, this blog has made me curious about a book I hadn’t heard of before but I’ll refrain from buying it.😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I can’t really give her a hard time about ‘show, don’t tell’ because that’s an area of weakness for me too. If you read it, please return to give your opinion. Everyone else sees awful impressed with her.

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  4. This might be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules when you’re writing personal essays or unpacking memories in creative nonfiction. If it works for you and conveys the point you wanted to make, then it’s doing it’s job even if it doesn’t sit well with readers. But of course this maybe presumes that the writer is writing their memoir for their future selves and not the unknown masses

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  5. I think part of my issue is that I ruminate. I dissect every detail of my life and I’m tremendously proficient at comparing my life, and my writing, with others. Sounds like you’re pretty similar to me. I don’t think that what you said was mean…maybe jealous, but I have definitely had similar thoughts. Don’t belittle your achievements self publishing! Anyway, I’m glad you shared this!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Memoir is one of my favorite genres. Now isn’t that a pretentious little statement. That said, I do enjoy reading them, getting a sense of another’s experience. Its one of the things I enjoy about your blog!

    Interestingly, when I had the opportunity to visit with my college roommate last spring, after about a 15 year hiatus, we were talking about reading and writing. She commented that she won’t read memoir because “its a skewed view”. She’s okay with it in fiction but not in nonfiction. i assume its someone’s point of view and have little difficulty with that, even as I see the circumstance differently from the part I’m exposed to. There seems to be no sense as to who gets published, or the reputation as the best, or valuable in a given field. Sorta like a beauty contest, as just as skewed.

    Write on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Steph. I like how the comments section of this blog post has turned into a discussion of when memoir writing pushes the fiction boundaries too far. Also, usually I’m pretty on board with who gets published and who doesn’t. But in this case…

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  7. I never thought about memoirs that way – but I agree with your point. Our younger selves are too young to come to those mature thoughts and points. I just finished “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout. The only reason I am bringing this up is that the book is a fictional characters memoir. Interestingly, the memoir is told a lot in Lucy’s adult conversations with her mother. And when she looks back to her childhood, she writes about events that took place. If she ever makes a connection of an event to a meaning, it is also very childlike (although as I read it, I shake my head laying my adult mind and inferences on the situation). So Lucy Barton, as an adult, recognizes she wants to be a writer and goes to a workshop of another writer – and how she takes that advice (and the advice of her neighbor) to tell her story – sorry, yada, yada, yada – it is really neat to read. And I think about it because of this post. But I would have never picked up on the fact that she didn’t make these big adult inferences as a child until I read this post. So, I agree with your point (and so does Elizabeth Strout). It’s not fair that whatsherface got her book published for being so untrue. Keep writing – a lot has changed since the last memoir – keep going with your story!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That book sounds interesting. I’m in dire need of a book to read. I’ll see if my library has it. I can’t imagine assembling and publishing another book. I’m happy I did it, but it was a pretty rough experience. Once might be enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I set out to read “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout. When I started reading the name “Lucy Barton” kept comig up in the story, so I stopped and read “My Name is Lucy Barton” first. Which I am glad I did. Strout also wrote “Olive Kitteredge” which was good and won a pulitzer. Olive is a hoot. My favorite fiction of 2017 though is “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman. Anyway – I would recommend any of those if your looking for a good read. Well, think about it. You have a lot of pieces written – could just bind them up!

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