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.