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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
This Happened to Me: Musings on Perspective and the Memoir-worthy Bar
If it was really Shelley who listened to the skylark, it was not Shelley in any important sense. —Mary Oliver
On the first day of my M.F.A. degree program in non-fiction writing, my teacher made the following announcement: “Unless you’ve been fortunate enough to make out with your father, odds are good you don’t have memoir material.”
He was referring, of course, to the plot of The Kiss, a memoir in which Kathryn Harrison recounts a clandestine affair she had with her father. The implications of his comment fell heavily on my literary aspirations. Though I have not made out with my father, I’ve always seen the world through a distinctly subjective lens. Years ago, pre-MFA, I tried to pass off a third-person story about attending family therapy with my adult siblings and aging parents as “fiction,” only to have my teacher return it with a hearty laugh. “Nice try!” he said as he slapped me on the back. When I pled ignorance, he explained patiently, “You’re not a fiction writer. You’re just not.” Perspective, I learned then, does not a camouflage make.
Just ask Salman Rushdie or Paul Auster. In their respective memoirs, released last year, each sidestepped the first-person point of view. Joseph Anton, Rushdie’s account of his life under fatwa, is told in the third person, while Winter’s Journey, Auster’s exploration of his life as lived through the physical body, is told in the second person. In a radio interview, Rushdie explained that the distant third person fit his tale. What could be more surreal than being forced into hiding after learning that a religious leader has given one a death sentence? He was living someone else’s life. Auster, on the other hand, told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that the second person was his way of inviting the reader in, making his tale more “universal.”
I tried that once. In Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment, my memoir about the year I spent collecting embarrassing stories on the streets of Manhattan, the protagonist is “you.” But the question of perspective in memoir has always intrigued me, long before I sat down in front of my laptop to chronicle the missteps of my wonderful, blunder-full thirtieth year, which was colored by an inappropriate, adolescent, and yet wildly fun romance I had with my literary agent. After all, perspective reveals not only one’s view of the world, but also one’s view of oneself in that world. What could be more intimate?
To justify this is a throat-clearing waste of time, which is why my grad school teacher’s incest joke made me cringe for reasons other than the disturbing images that flashed through my mind. Did I have to prove I’d lived through something “narrative-worthy,” such as a plane crash or life-threatening illness? If I did have to pass a test of memoir-validation, how might this alter my relationship to the story itself? Would I then seek to have experiences so that I could write about them, as opposed to exploring stories that carried intrinsic meaning? Only once in my life did I make a decision based solely on the fact that it might be a good tale later—and making out with a squirrely drummer in a dingy, stalled Holiday Inn elevator outside of Boston when I was a mere twenty-one years old (and thought wearing short skirts and knee-high boots was a swell, not slutty, idea) didn’t cut the narrative, not to mention romantic, mustard. There was no story, just an unforgettable, regrettable five minutes. I’ll never do that again. Or, at least I don’t think I’ll do that again. Taking a page from David Foster Wallace, one potential title for a forthcoming memoir (mine or anyone else’s) could be A Funny Thing I’ll Never Do Again…Supposedly.
Let’s face it: this notion of having done something notable to merit a memoir is faulty. As a teacher, I’ve had many a student come to me with dramatic stories. They’ve fled burning buildings, discovered their spouse had a second family, survived not one but two life-threatening illnesses, crossed the border from Mexico alone and pregnant in the back of a flatbed truck. “Everyone tells me I should write a book,” the students say, carefully gauging my reaction. Often, I offer advice antithetical to what my own teacher told me: When the story itself is so grand—with high drama, crazy-sounding details, inconceivable developments of our external reality—we should consider ourselves in dangerous territory; writing from this place can easily become a labor of the lazy.
I myself discovered this challenge when my older brother, who has an undiagnosed developmental disability, called to tell me he’d just gotten married in a Wiccan ceremony in Salem, Massachusetts to a woman no one in the family had ever met. Seconds after I heard his new wife in the background calling me her “sister-in-law,” he said, “Oh, my god, Sue. I gotta go. She’s having a seizure.” Click. I would later learn more details: the wedding ceremony was non-binding, thanks to the high priestess’ foresight; my new “sister-in-law” was pregnant and I was not to tell my parents. Oh, and my alleged sister-in-law also told me that the father of her first child was in jail for arson and attempted murder. This time, she said, would be different. And it was. When my brother learned she’d lied about the paternity, they broke up.
Years later, I tried to write the story, expecting the surreal facts to do all the heavy lifting. Conveniently skipping over the whole reason that this set of circumstances mattered to me, as well as any semblance of real emotion, the words, the mood, my perspective, they fell flat.
Addressing larger-than-life stories is trickier than it seems. In The Fourth State of Matter, Jo Ann Beard artfully recounts her proximity to a harrowing tragedy, but she does so by first depicting the everyday texture of her life, pre-catastrophe. (If one has not read this essay, one should.) What makes the piece so moving is not that is passes the memoir-worthy bar (which it surely does), but her ability to revel in a sliver of her life, before the tragedy; in doing so, she invites readers to experience what might otherwise have been an unimaginable turning point.
Unlike Beard’s essay, my own memoir was borne of a ho-hum place. I had dating stories so fantastical (or so mundane to New York City, depending on your vantage) that one married friend said, “Your stories are like a modern day Notes from the Underground.” This particular comment came after I’d spotted my recent ex-agent/boyfriend, for whom I still pined, through the kitchen window of my new boyfriend’s apartment, just after we’d engaged in amorous contact on his couch, blinds open. In a city of nearly nine million people, they shared a backyard.
How often did one’s lawyer boyfriend (the rebound from the literary agent) disappear, only to resurface six weeks later with an email apologizing for his absence and announcing that he was off to rehab for a drug addiction he’d failed to disclose? How many people could say they received a yellow card from their boyfriend, sent from said treatment facility, saying sorry for the lies, but he was off to challenge the reigning ping pong champ, a Korean doctor who’d spent all his money on booze, cars and prostitutes? My idea for the book was simple: law of attraction gone awry. In eating, breathing and sleeping other people’s humiliations and shame, I’d effectively, if unwittingly, invited embarrassment into my own life. On the surface, this seemed like a fine conceit for a memoir.
But after writing one hundred-plus pages of my confessional in first person—covering bad dates, awkward stranger interactions and a whole slew of my own gaffes—I knew something was wrong. The writing was bad. Really bad. If I had amassed all this so-called material, why was the prose so turgid? I enlisted the help of my trusted thesis advisor, Alice. She’d tell me the truth.
“The truth,” Alice said, “is that this isn’t your best work. It seems like you’re embarrassed to write about your own embarrassment.” During a leisurely stroll around Prospect Park, she suggested I fictionalize the story. Remembering what my other writing teacher had told me, I told her that wasn’t possible. Deciding I needed therapy more than I needed to call myself an author, I put the project down and got my underweight, depressed, chain-smoking self to yoga and therapy.
Three months later, I had an epiphany. Alice was right. I was, in fact, embarrassed to write in the first person. Somehow, the conventional form of the confessional only added more pressure, stoking hyper-awareness that I was declaring to my old teacher and the whole world that I had a story worth telling. (Did I? I hardly knew.) Besides, my ego concerns were loud. If I were really honest about my feelings, I’d upset people, namely those with whom I share genetic material. I needed a psychological trick, a cushion to protect me from my fears about writing what I wanted to write. In the end, I chose the second person, because it seemed easier for me to say that “you” made a series of bad, possibly life-threatening decisions, or that “you” suffer from neuroses, or that “you,” perhaps, could have been kinder to yourself. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
In a technical sense, this self-imposed distance made writing about difficult and personal events much easier, allowing me to enter, even relive, some challenging moments. When I took a step back, I understood the larger picture, and, by extension, my relationship to it.
And that would have remained the end of the story had Auster and Rushdie not released memoirs told from alternative perspectives. Each time I heard the authors speak of their motivations, I sat to attention. On an intellectual level, I understood their respective stylistic choices: Our stories do, in fact, have lives of their own, dictating how they want to be told. We hope that by sharing intimate narratives, we can help others, bridge the gap between respective existences, however briefly—and perspective can play a critical role in connecting the reader to the tale. After listening to these two celebrated authors discuss their highly personal tales, though, I started questioning other reasons a writer might opt for a Wildean-type mask: what if all memoirs are simply embarrassing in nature, in the sense that any public telling of a story somehow implies self-importance? Could there be a more self-aggrandizing endeavor? This (in hardcover form) happened to me (a finite body).
In Memoir: A History, Ben Yagoda traces memoir-bashing back to its roots, which effectively coincide with the form itself. According to Yagoda, in 1798, the year after the word autobiography was entered into the Oxford English Dictionary, German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel wrote:
Pure autobiographies are written either by neurotics who are fascinated by their own ego, as in Rousseau’s case…or by authors of a robust artistic or adventurous self-love…or by born historians who regard themselves only as material for historic art; or by women who also coquette with posterity; or by pedantic minds who want to bring even the most minute things in order before they die and cannot let themselves leave the world without commentaries.
Surely, Schlegel would have also used the term “narcissist,” if only the word had been in popular use then. Alas, the term did not appear in the lexicon until 1911, when Austrian analyst Otto Rank used it in a paper, linking the condition to excessive self-regard. (This was 15 years before Rank moved to Paris and began treating writer Anais Nin, who, in turn, wrote about their work in her own personal journals, which were eventually published in 1966.) In addition to Confessions, Schlegel’s point of reference for Rousseau’s ego-driven autobiographical work, published four years after Rousseau’s death in 1782, Rousseau also mined the self-as-subject in a play that was first performed thirty years prior to the publication of his memoirs. His own designation of the play’s genre is a strong hint as to how he might have responded to Shlegel’s criticisms had he been alive to read them. Its title: Narcissus, Or The Self-Admirer: A Comedy.
In an 1840 Census Report, the Committee on Statistics tried to capture information on “idiocy/insanity.” Had they been successful, critics like Schlegel would have had more ornamentation with which to adorn their arguments against public self-exploration. I once attended a live storytelling performance with a novelist friend. The format, open mic, seemed to invite first-person horror story after horror-story. (The tales were all so dire, so “memoir-worthy” that I’ve officially blocked them from memory.) After, my friend said to me, “Next time, let’s just go to dinner and bring along the DSM.”
But the problem was not in the tellers’ bald confessions. Let’s take The Kiss, for example. As cringe-worthy as the scenes are, from her stealing time with her father on a futon in a dark a Harvard Square apartment to when Harrison’s mother watches a gynecologist break Harrison’s hymen, I would read that book again. Not only is Harrison meticulous in her prose, but she also knows where she stands in relationship to the events that have shaped her life. Years after I read The Kiss, one stark image stays with me: that of a cockroach trapped in a glass jar, which Harrison observes as her father, whom she’s already slept with, is upstairs having sex with her mother. French philosopher Ricoeur once wrote, in Life: A Story in Search of a Narrator, “A life is no more than a biological phenomenon as long as it is not interpreted.” Memoirists, aspiring and laypeople alike, take note. This is your salvation.
Before my book was sold, and after our messy breakup, I had a drink with my former boyfriend/literary agent. At a bar in Park Slope, I gingerly revealed that I’d written a memoir. “A memoir?” he said. “Did you have a kidney transplant I don’t know about?” At his dig, my old insecurities about this question of memoir-worthiness came rushing back.
I thought unkindly, No, I didn’t lose a kidney. I dated you.
The grad school teacher who glibly announced that incest was best changed my life when, later in the semester, he said, “Memoir is a representation of consciousness.” Then, he went on to scribble a half-coherent diagram on the board. I liked that I couldn’t fire back a rational explanation for what he’d just proposed. In this space, my own imagination started to unfurl, the moments I’d lived, fading into sepia tones, not because they were more important than anyone else’s but because they were specific to me. Memoir, a representation of consciousness. Memoir, a representation of consciousness. At night, as I parked my Oldsmobile Intrigue on a side street in my Bronx neighborhood, I’d roll that phrase, anathema to the burning-building theory of memoir-writing, over and over in my head, until I could feel my abdomen filling with full breath, until I could pick up the gauntlet laid before me, until I understood the task at hand: understanding the facts of my life, based on my subjective feelings, the ability to express my particular, sometimes peculiar, of walking through the world. If it sounds easy, it’s not. At least not for me.
In Confessions, Rousseau carefully catalogued his own humiliations, including his multiple “illegitimate” children and the time he pinned his own thievery on an innocent bystander. (Full disclosure: until the drafting of this essay, I thought I was the first to use this conceit. How’s that for a blind spot?) Even in its earliest days, to endeavor in memoir was to “own” the messy unpredictability of our natures. The biggest challenge is rooting into that particular consciousness. How did I really feel when that earth-shattering news arrived? Why do I remember an otherwise boring moment of picking out library books? Why does this even matter? Whether or not one agrees with Zoe Heller’s critical assessment of Joseph Anton, one cannot deny that Rushdie is offering an experience—a consciousness, if you will—that is particular to him.
Though Rushdie and Auster may have gone on the record with other reasons for stepping out of the first-person memoir convention, other motivations were probably also at work: not only does crafted distance in memoir inure the writer against calls (internal and otherwise) of self-importance, but it also sets us further adrift in a dreamlike state, allowing the intersection of present consciousness with past events to be, indeed, a very trippy place. Quieting the memoir-worthy debate, writers can go granular, entering a uniquely conjured, not to mention lived, world. Our lives, no matter how much we parse them, are imbued with mystery, with unknowable infinity, even as our finite bodies inch closer to death. As Patrica Hampl, the grand dame of personal narratives, wrote in “Memory and Imagination,” “The self-absorption that seems to be the impetus and embarrassment of autobiography turns into (or perhaps always was) a hunger for the world.”
When it comes to passionate hunger, I, for one, don’t want to be in full control. (What a fruitless bore, to try to excise transcendence or mystery from the equations of our lives.) In Narcissus, Rousseau hints at the hidden gems to be mined from narrative adventures, as expressed by Frontin, the servant of Valentine, the self-admirer. Frontin complains that his master can’t comprehend him because “he is fallen in love with his own picture,” to which Lucinda, Valentine’s sister, replies, “What! Without knowing it?”
“Yes,” Frontin says, “and that is what makes it so extraordinary.”
Suzanne Guillette teaches memoir, most recently at New York University’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, O Magazine and elsewhere. She is the author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment (Atria, 2009) which chronicles the year she spent collecting embarrassing stories on New York City streets.
Photo courtesy of TC.