Feb 052011

Guidelines for not-writing your memoir. This should provoke some R & D (rage and derision). Noticed via Frank Tempone’s Facebook reference.


A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.

But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose. These days, if you’re planning to browse the “memoir” listings on Amazon, make sure you’re in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.

via The Problem With Memoirs – NYTimes.com.

  15 Responses to “The Problem With Memoirs – NYTimes.com”

  1. I’ll jump into the mix…

    As a very green CNF editor, I see a lot of entries that would qualify for some of the criticisms that Genzlinger addresses. I’ve read several hundred essays over the last few months and I might agree that some thematic material is inherently boring. Every trip to an exotic jungle location is not interesting. Abuse, disease, death, divorce, coming-out, all of these things have been done to death. But where Genzlinger misses the mark (though he does touch on it briefly) is that it’s not theme that matters at all, but the language. Kings and movie stars are no more or less interesting to me as reader if the prose is horrible. Some of the best pieces I’ve read this year were about, more or less, little things, by people who have not accomplished “noteworthy” things (to use G.’s term.) It’s in the telling, in the arresting language, in the mined dramatic moments, that the reader is caught. I’ve seen some very dramatic essays, about some serious, “noteworthy” that just weren’t compelling because of the way the writer rendered them. It’s a tired saying, but art is transforming the particular, the specific, into the universal. This, in my humble opinion, has nothing to do with theme, life experiences.
    I agree that there are lots of people who feel they are inherently interesting (see previous comment about travelling into jungles) but even a trip to the mall can be interesting if the writer can render the details and radiate them out to stand for something more than the surface content. I think Mr. Genzlinger needs a little does of humanity injected into his criticism.
    Of course, in his defense, a lot of writers need a little dose of his criticism too. To read more.

  2. I think this is terrific article and fairly apt; seems like everybody and their mother is writing memoir lately. I’d venture to guess that enrollments at VC in that genre have increased, though I don’t have any stats to back that up.

    All of the points are well taken…it comes down to the writing, I think. Some people can write about chewing gum and engage the reader, most cannot. There is some danger, when writing about oneself, in coming off as being hugely self-absorbed. I like what Genzlinger has to say about the disappearance of the author when reviewing “An Exclusive Love.” I think this carries over to all good prose: let the writer disappear and let the reader be alone with a good story.

    I must say I was in a few ‘prose’ workshops at VC in which there were CNF writers and some of the writing was a kind of much-ado-about-nothing; another lesbian camping trip, spiritual enlightenment on a religious retreat, hunting big game in Africa. No matter the subject, if the prose is pedestrian then I can’t bring myself to give a shit. Perhaps this is because I always hear the little voice in my head chanting “liar, liar, pants on fire…” when reading/hearing memoir. It has to be subjective. My own private definition of fiction is that it is the truth clothed in lies and memoir is lies clothed in the truth. I have trouble suspending disbelief, unless of course the voice of the work/the writing is so absorbing that I am swept up and forget genre all together. A book like Sue Silverman’s, “Terror…Father” or Tim Obrien’s book of stories, “The Things They Carried,” works like that on me

    Another idea is one used by Peggy Rambach in her book, “Fighting Gravity,” about her marriage to Andre Dubus which she calls ‘fictionalized auto-biography.’ I’m not sure how I feel about this. I have written fiction based on real life; I call it fiction.

    Maybe in CNF the problem is detachment. The writer is compelled to write because they are so moved by what’s happened to them. But their emotional shite alone is insufficient evidence for me. There must be emotional detachment from the event in order for a writer to be able to write about it effectively. At least I think that is true for me, in my writing.

  3. “But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose.” Agreed. Some things have cheapened some of private experience on the page or screen. However, there are some people that can make anything interesting. I like the idea that one must “earn” it – by the power of their prose, their experience, or ideally both. For me, I enjoy reading about emotionally rich or transformative experiences, regardless of the “status” of the writer.
    However, I think people should be realistic about serving up their diary on a platter and expecting the world to take notice. As a reader, Kudos to the NC writers who do consistently serve up personal experience essays/related with substance and style. Dare I say? Also a difference between the more literary memoirs and mainstream (where celebrities or pseudo-celebrities are the norm). I am getting a real kick out of Nora Ephron’s latest. She doesn’t seem to be trying too hard – but it works and yes, she earned it. Other memoirs blow you away and you never forget them (Dorothy Allison).

  4. Gosh, I’m not one for snark and then realized I actually wrote “pseudo-celebrity.” I enjoyed reading RJF and Meg’s commentary but I do think Genzlinger contradicted himself a little with his last line and as a very humble reader, I would never want to discourage someone from the courageous process of writing a memoir. Most memoir-writers that I know seem to fall into the “I have to write this” category. They may or may not explore the publishing industry or memoir marketplace. In addition to quality writing, it seems that without a unique angle/voice, marketing plan, “credentials” or high-visibility presence, most memoirs won’t see the light of day. By developing any or all of those combined with pure passion and determination, it is still possible. If there are people that are interested in your theme AND significant numbers of those people buy books and you get your book in front of key decision-makers, there is always a chance. If the discovery is in the writing, how can one discover if one does not write? The paradox continues. Perhaps some memoir-writers will weigh-in.

  5. I agree that I never want discourage anyone from writing. But then again I may not want to read what they’ve written.

  6. This was an interesting read, and I’m glad some others have already commented to say much of I wanted to say already. Genzlinger’s piece had quite a bit that I’d agree with, but his tone made me think he was reacting a bit emotionally to being bored to death by a series of memoirs he found uninteresting. Perhaps this points to a key “danger” in reading and writing memoir – more than fiction, where the reader I think is more willing to accept a created world of the author on its own terms, or celebrity autobiography, which either has an air of “historical snapshot” (I think that was Genzlinger’s term) or an assumed readership that will like it simply because of an intrinsic interest in the author, memoir by normal people with normal lives runs a much greater risk of leaving the readers asking why they just read it or, like Genzlinger, even asking why it even needed to be published.

    I agree with Rich too that some things are intrinsically uninteresting, which reminds me of our conversation on my Facebook wall about an essay in BAE2010 about a woman’s jungle safari, one of my least favorite essays in the collection, one that actually made me dislike the author. This brings me to another assertion about the memoir and personal essay as a form – there’s an implied relationship between the reader and the writer, and the importance of cultivating a likable, engaging written persona is MUCH more important in personal nonfiction than in fiction, or even autobiography – there seems to me to be much less room for the unreliable narrator. But then, that essay was chosen as a Best American Essay, so there’s obviously a contingent that disagrees with me.

  7. I feel that material is genre dependent. For example, if I wanted to write about how I feel about the war, I can use my direct experiences to describe being in the control tower on 9/11 or fictionalize a scene in Iraq. Tempone might say the 9/11 control-tower essay would be “extraordinary” because it’s something few people experienced, but would that mean that the fictional idea is less special simply because of the essay’s theme. This begs the question Does an essay’s theme have to be so extraordinary as to surpass fiction, as if fiction’s inherently superior? My decision to fictionalize something or not really comes down to how I want to control to story and engage the reader. Calling something oversharing is ridiculous because any topic could just as easily be true if it were written as fiction or CNF. How many times have you heard the writer say “but it really happened!” whether in a fiction or CNF workshop? It’s dependent on how the writer wishes to control the material. As for over sharing, I’ll share this: I was accused of making military women look weak because I write about rape in the service. I could easily fictionalize it, but if I did I’d be allowing the silence of such harmful occurrences to continue, instead of being direct and using what I deem the appropriate genre to express my creative intentions. Perhaps the author’s concept of over sharing has to do with his comfort level, for which I say, read the comics, because even The Giving Tree is pretty dark.

  8. It is very possible for a writer to relate an experience such as “being in the control tower on 9/11″ and have a dull uninteresting result. It all comes down to the writing, I think. The experience is sensational and must be related as such; by that I mean with sensory writing not drama. The more effectively a writer can resurrect this experience without commentary or abstraction, the better. Just get thee behind the camera and roll film. Show the bricks and mortar and the blood and guts and the reader will respond.

    Perhaps many of the memoirs showing up these days are written by people who are not writers. People who’ve had some life changing experience and think, “This would make a great movie!” And so they write a shitty book.

    I also think of things DG taught me; like desire resistance and image patterning. These things, as well as, an active voice, spare writing & avoidance of abstraction make writing vital. And where is vital writing needed more than in personal essay or memoir? The writer must achieve verisimilitude or risk losing readers, all genres aside. I want to believe your truth and your lie; I want to be taken along; I want to forget about you writer and be alone in the teeming world of your prose.

  9. I question whether some of the best-selling memoirs are even really non-fiction memoirs: “Glass Castle”, “Running with Scissors”, “Eat, Pray, Love” (Egads…that one was tedious!). Seems like there’s a lot of fictionalizing going on.

  10. I just read that Bristol Palin is writing a memoir. I’m befuddled.

  11. Oh Dear Lord! Who buys these books?

  12. Over at Brevity they are having a “Bristol Stomp Lyric Essay” contest…Here’s your chance to use those CNF skills writing a faux memoir rant!


  13. The CNF workshops that I participated in at VC often frustrated me because most of the students wrote about the biggest moments of their lives–their traumas, their losses, their coming of age. I was tired of these subjects that have been written to death. It took me until my last residency to articulate part of my frustration, and this is what I think Genzlinger gets wrong. If I may be so rude as to psycho-analyze others (and perhaps I am just projecting here), I don’t think most people write about the worst moments of their lives because they are narcissists, I think they write about the worst moments of their lives because they think that is all they have that is worth writing about. They think their tragedies are the only thing an audience will care about. They lack the confidence, both that their writing is strong enough to tackle lesser subjects, and that they themselves are inherently interesting, so they mine their lives for the most dramatic moments they can find. Throughout my time at VC (until I worked with dg)I struggled against the pressure I felt to write about my own ordinary tragedies. Whenever I wrote about something less than life-changing I was told to expose myself more and reveal what the event was “really” about. The writers of rape and incest and death and catastrophic illness and drug addiction in my workshop groups were not told to reveal what their stories were “really” about–they had already bared themselves, often unnecessarily, on the page. Bad writing exists in every genre, about every subject in the universe, and it is not going to go away. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Farrell above, that art is about transforming the particular into the universal. This is what I try (with varying success) to do in my own CNF writing. Rather than tell these people to stop writing, rather than blast their talent (or lack thereof) I would suggest guiding them to better material. What I finally said to my classmates at my last workshop was this: “These are not the only things you have to write about. You are more than your tragedies, and if those are the only things you can write about, you will quickly run out of material.” I would rather have thousands of bad writers out there writing about the minutia of their lives un-interestingly, than watch gorgeous writers of prose be crippled by the message that if they haven’t lived interesting lives, they should shut up.

    • Agreed! While I do write about rape, military hazing, and child abuse, I also write about CNF comedy about shoes, for example. I’m constantly inspired by David Sedaris, a perfect example of using language to uplift the “ordinary” into art. Anyone who considers CNF as simply about trauma is limiting themselves and their audience.

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