One day, my brother-in-law, Philip, who knows I’ve been working on a memoir for the last eight years, said, “You’ve spent so much of your life on this book.”
There wasn’t any sarcasm or discouragement in his tone; rather I’m sure I heard concern as if he were really saying, “Will this be worth it for you in the end?” or “Aren’t you giving up too much of your life for it?” Or even possibly, “Don’t you think you might be taking too long?” He’s not the only one. I’ve heard this concern from other family members and close friends over the years. I’ve heard it especially from my mother, the person who knows more than anyone else how much of my life I’ve dedicated to the memoir, except she’s been less subtle. “But you finished your memoir five years ago,” she has said more than a few times. She’s right. The first version of the memoir was my dissertation for my PhD that I completed and successfully defended. It had most of the scenes and characters and detail I needed. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end, but it still lacked that necessary component that sets memoir apart from most other genres: perspective. And not just perspective, but adequate perspective.
Memoir has a lot in common with fiction, but one way in which it differs is that the story in memoir is not just what happened but what the memoirist has made of what has happened. Of course, you can, and often do, have elements of this in fiction, as well; narrators, for instance, who try to make sense of what has happened in their lives or the lives of their characters. But in literary memoir, perspective or self-reflection is not optional; it’s necessary. It shows the reader what the memoirist has learned from the experience, that the memoirist has in fact learned something.
In her text, Writing the Memoir, From Truth to Art, Judith Barrington instructs students that memoir has its roots in the essay, and that the father of the essay, the French thinker Montaigne, explained that “in an essay, the track of a person’s thoughts struggling to achieve some understanding of a problem is the plot, is the adventure” (qtd. Barrington 20). Without the memoirist trying to achieve some understanding and perspective of the portion of her life she’s writing about, memoir has no plot.
Such perspective, however, can take several years or decades to cultivate. I clearly remember my dissertation director instructing me and my classmates to choose something that happened at least eight years prior so that we’d have some perspective on what happened. The problem was the story that I had to tell—the one that wanted to be told—had only begun to happen five years prior and was still unfolding. It’s only been in the last year or two, that I’ve found myself far enough away from the experience to gain the kind of perspective necessary to avoid what Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in their text, Tell it Slant, Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, call “revenge prose” and “therapist’s couch.” In “therapist couch” prose, the writer is still overrun by “confusing emotions” and “feelings of self pity” and only wants to share those emotions with the reader (44). In “revenge prose” the writer seems intent on getting back at someone who wronged him or her. Miller and Paola continue, “In both cases the writer has not yet gained enough perspective for wisdom or literature to emerge… [and is the one] who comes out looking bad” (44).
Few readers are drawn into a memoir where the imperfect memoirist places blame on others for her own imperfections and mistakes or who has not taken the time to understand the people in her life who have become the characters in her book. Memoirists, like fiction writers, must aim to write fully dimensional characters with all of their humanity intact. They must be even more willing to look at themselves as unflinchingly as they would any other character. There are exceptions to this, of course, as in the case of memoirs about abuse, specifically child abuse. A child who is abused is always wronged, never wrong. However, even in such cases, Miller and Paola argue, and I agree, that the best writers of nonfiction show “a marked generosity toward their characters even those who appear unsympathetic or irredeemable” (45). It’s a tall order, especially in stories of abuse, but any memoir regardless of subject matter should aim to follow the Do unto others as you would have them do unto you rule; in other words, Write your characters and their flaws the way you would want them to write you and yours. It means looking at oneself and the others in one’s memoir with a balance of honesty and compassion, which doesn’t mean that the writing is void of emotion or urgency. As author Terry Tempest Williams explains, the writer must “channel” that emotion—anger, insecurity, jealousy whatever it may be—“so that it becomes nourishing rather than toxic” (qtd. Miller and Paola 45).
Memoirs about child abuse aside, writing memoir also means owning up to those parts of ourselves that are less than virtuous or appealing. It means attempting to see oneself clearly. In that first version of my memoir, I had not yet figured out that the choices I’d made in my life were just that: choices. I saw myself more as a pawn being moved about my life by God and circumstance and fate. I saw myself as a victim of circumstance rather than a participant. This has been a critical discovery for me. First and foremost, it has made me grow up and take responsibility for my life and choices, but it’s also helped to mature my writing voice and storytelling.
But there’s no denying that all this candor can be hard to muster. Writers of all genres face the censor, that voice in their head that says among other things, “You’re going to write that? You’re going to say that? What are people going to think? Are you even a good enough writer?” But at least fiction writers have the form to disguise any autobiographical content that might be part of the story. With memoir, you have no form to hide behind. If you have the added irony of being a highly private person, like I am, the censor is even more unrelenting: “What are people going to think of you for writing this? What is your family going to think? Everyone’s going to leave you.” Owning up to all the embarrassing and intimate components of being human—like feeling jealousy and anger, insecurity and desire—in such a public way is unnerving. That’s why having adequate perspective is even more important. All the soul baring has a chance at being well-written and worthwhile for the reader to read.
It was Socrates who declared the unexamined life is not worth living, but I, along with a long line of thinkers and writers on memoir, would go on to say that, in the case of memoir, the unexamined life is also not worth writing. It’s perspective that helps to make the genre, and it often takes a long time to cultivate, if it’s ever fully cultivated. And maybe that’s the catch, that there comes a point when the perspective one has cultivated on an experience is enough. Maybe there’s something for me to learn from my brother-in-law and mother’s seeming impatience. In fact, maybe there’s a part of me that’s been relieved that it’s taken me all this time to develop adequate perspective, a part of me that somewhere along the line started stalling because of my fear of revealing myself. Maybe I finally do have enough perspective. No, correction: I do now have enough perspective. It is time for me to finally finish, to plow forward doggedly, so that if I have read my brother-in-law and my mother’s concerns correctly, there will still be a lot more life to live after the memoir.
Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 2002. Print.
Miller, Brenda and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004. Print.
Maria Giura PhD teaches first year writing and memoir at Montclair State University where she’s also an assistant director of the First-Year-Writing Program. Her poetry has been published in The Paterson Literary Review (PLR) and in VIA and has won awards from the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Contest sponsored by PLR and from the American Academy of Poets. She was a finalist for the Milton Center Fellowship, which supports emerging writers in bridging imagination and religious faith, and has read excerpts from her memoir at various conferences of the Italian American Studies Association. She is currently revising her memoir for publication.