This is from a talk I gave at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture in October 2010. It’s about why memoir is good. For writers, readers, and the entire world.
I started writing memoir in the early 90s, when I was a journalist at the Village Voice. And almost inevitably, when I was at a party or the gym or a political meeting and said what I was doing, someone would ask, “Aren’t you a little young for that?” I was 28 when I began. And I would take a deep breath and answer, “No.”
Before the late 1980s, people generally used the word “memoir” to mean a fat and comprehensive book written by someone at the end of their lives, almost always someone very famous, like a president or a movie star or a Titan of Industry.
Of course, people who weren’t as prominent as that had been writing personal accounts of their lives for hundreds of years, thousands if you count poetry. They just hadn’t been calling them memoirs. There were slave narratives, captivity narratives, lyric poems that spoke with outrageous power about personal feelings and struggles, accounts of spiritual crucibles ranging from ancient India and China to Bill W., the modern founder of AA.
American capitalism turned out to be a great soil for these more democratic kinds of memoirs because, for a long time, it gave people more individual economic empowerment than they could get anyplace else. The spread of Freudianism in the early 20th century gave many people the enthusiastic urge to explore their deepest longings like that great lyric memoirist himself, Walt Whitman — if he’d only known the phrase “polymorphous perversity.” Which he, of course, explored anyway, speaking about what he loved in his own body in words like “Breast that presses against other breasts it shall be you… Mixed tussled hay of head and beard and brawn, it shall be you.” At the same time, African-Americans’ writings about their daily encounters with white police, shopkeepers and bosses made it permissible for all Americans to write about everyday personal oppression and to put personally-experienced hurt and humiliation squarely in the context of the political. It was one of the ways that early memoir was helping people to understand that the personal was political.
One reason memoirs are a potentially important political form is that they always speak from the individual body, and as Ursula Le Guin wrote, “It is in our bodies that we lose or begin our freedom.” No matter who you are, no one can experience your body for you, or speak about your body with greater authority than you can. More than any other literary form, memoir means people speaking from their own bodies, their own experience, and identifying the meaning of it. That is why feminism, the radical movement for control of the body by its actual owners, led to an explosion of first-person writings on subjects that had previously been seen as too personal — and really, too dirty and crude — for any woman to write about, from sexual abuse and abortion to what it felt like to breast-feed a baby.
Asian, Latin and Native American writers wrote about family lives and economic circumstances that were vastly different from the white lives they were taught to emulate in school — like Sherman Alexie’s reservation where there were no sources of income, and alcohol and Native myth were the two, hugely different main competing sources of interest. There were crucial writings that explored forbidden sexual experience, like those from the gay and straight World War Two veterans, some of them disabled or survivors of torture, who started the S/M movement in the 1950s in Los Angeles and San Francisco. All these led to growing freedom for all writers in this country to write about the most important truths of their own experience, even if others might find those truths shocking, upsetting, or horrifying to contemplate.
Since the 90s, memoir has come to mean deeply felt personal writing by someone of any age about his or her own life, meant to express its true struggles and its real texture. Not the fabric of life we have all been led to believe we’re supposed to be living by magazines and television — the life in which we have beautiful possessions and all the money we need, we never feel deeply hurt or humiliated and we always know what to do. The magical life in which we have friends and relationships whenever we want them, we are never lonely, we all have a house and a car that runs and enough money for vacations, and we never die.
It’s a standard by which almost all of us inevitably judge ourselves as weird, deviant, different, not measuring up. The fact that the public is reading memoirs written by people of any age and by all kinds of people, is very much in alignment with an important spiritual goal: valuing every human being and their experiences, not just those who are prominent or powerful.
My memoir students frequently tell me they’re afraid that writing about their own lives is some kind of horrible narcissistic enterprise. They say, “Who am I to think my life is interesting enough for anyone else to want to read about it?”
I don’t think those fears are justified. I actually believe that everyone’s lives are incredibly interesting, and that the main thing people need to write good memoir are the tools to communicate that interesting-ness to one another, so that others will be able to perceive it.
In fact, judgments and shame about memoir-writing are very common, more on the part of people who don’t write it than people who do. “What kind of freak would want people to read about her relationship with her mother? What kind of freak would want people to read about how threatened he starts to feel whenever he gets into a sexual relationship?” There’s a lot of very harsh public criticism of the memoir, as though there were something inherently unseemly about writing about things that are genuinely difficult or worrisome about one’s life.
It’s my belief that some of the criticism simply comes from people’s uneasiness about being confronted with all the trauma in our midst. But there’s also a kind of Protestant ethos at work here that says that people are supposed to blend in, be humble, and be private.
To such an ethos I ask why. Why not actually talk to one another about our lives? As long as we do it with presence and insight, it is a valuable thing for us to do with one another.
I like to think of memoir as a kind of public conversation in which we speak to others about who we really are, and we hope and intend for them to listen to us with their own undisguised, unmade-up selves, who they really are.
But in memoir there’s not only a very important dialogue taking place between the writer and the reader, but also within the writer.
The Marxist philosopher of language V.N. Volosinov wrote that all language is “dialogical,” because it always involves a speaker and a listener. That’s true even if there’s only one person in the room. This may sound odd, but think about it: When you’re thinking, you’re usually talking to yourself, if only inside your head. When you say to yourself, “I’m so happy,” or “Oh no,” or “What did I do that for?” it’s as though there’s one person in yourself saying it and another person hearing it.
And sometimes we’re in very active dialogue with ourselves. For example, if you’re talking to yourself about your life. Perhaps you’ll say “my sister always tried to bully me and I was very scared of her.” And then you might reply “But I was very competitive with her and I always did better than her in everything. Maybe she was jealous and furious at me.”
Volosinov wrote that where language or literature are concerned, “two voices are the minimum for life.” It may be surprising to think of memoir this way, because some people think of memoir as a kind of unitary incessant babbling. But it can actually be thought of as the incorporation and creative confrontation within the self of two voices, many voices, difference itself.
The toleration of different perspectives and an engagement between them is what in my view the best memoir is all about: letting in ambivalence, ambiguity, problems, contradictions and feelings we don’t understand.
One way to look at this dialogue quality in memoir has to do with insight, or what psychoanalysts call the observing ego. In the same moment, you’re doing something and you’re watching yourself do it. You do the thing — it could be something stupid or something awful or something self-destructive — and you observe yourself with a combination of critical mindfulness and compassion.
The writer Kathryn Harrison is a great example of this. In her memoir The Kiss, Harrison writes about how her father, who’s been absent all her life, returns when she is age 20, to announce he wants to “make love” with her. She writes: “‘I love you,’ my father says. ‘I need you.’ ‘I need you too,’ I whisper. Please don’t make this the price, I beg silently. ‘There are rules that apply to most people,’ says my father, ‘and there are people who are outside of those rules. People who are –’
She asks, ‘How can you know that you — that we — are exceptions? ‘ ‘I just do,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to trust me.’”
The words love and trust are painfully double-meaninged in this passage, and the two voices are the one where Kathryn Harrison wants her father’s love and needs him as a father, and her unbearable realization that he wants to exploit this love by having sex with her.
Harrison writes profoundly from the observing ego in this book: she watches herself, as an adult — just barely — choose to have sex with her father — and she relates this experience of her younger self with a mixture of critical mindfulness of the self-destruction inherent in this choice and compassion.
When I started writing memoir, in the 90s, it was because I wanted to explore feelings in myself that I didn’t understand. And actions of my own that I didn’t understand. In my case, they were feelings connected with sex, and feelings connected with being subjected to violence as a child. The actions were my actions when I dated, and any actions involving anger, which terrified me.
So for me memoir was a way of being present, a way of being a compassionate critical excavator of my own life. Why was I the way I was? Why was my life the way it was? How could it change?
And even though when I started out I didn’t have any idea how to change it, I made the decision to switch from poetry, which I was writing initially, to prose, because — no offense to poets or poetry — for me poetry was about reproducing a static moment, while narrative felt more connected to transformation, because in a narrative you go from A to B to C over time and you’re telling the story of a change. For me that was more hopeful, because I wanted change so badly. The form I was writing in was mirroring what I wanted to happen in my life.
I want to be clear here: writing memoir is not the same thing as personal transformation. You can have one without the other. There are no doubt many beautiful memoirs written without personal transformation, and certainly personal transformation is being done all the time without memoirs. Yet they are connected.
One way that memoir and transformation are connected has to do with beauty. Both memoir and personal transformation aim to take something ugly — or at least something very imperfect — and turn it into something more beautiful.
Because memoir is not just intended to be true, it’s also intended to be beautiful. Which is a huge challenge in itself — how to make it both. One strange and very important question here is, “What’s beautiful about my life (even when it’s ugly)?” What’s beautiful about rape or hunger or racism or physical abuse? How could anybody possibly turn that into beauty?
It’s an understandably disturbing idea to some people. “What kind of beast would turn its life into words?” Adrienne Rich once wrote.
But many conceptions of beauty have to do with wholeness. The words cosmos and cosmetic are in fact related, because both come from the same Greek word that means “an orderly arrangement of things.” The cosmos is seen as beautiful because it is entire. It is whole. In fact, it is wholeness, presence and the act of embracing — taking things in their entirety, clasping them together, understanding and accepting them — that make things beautiful. The Greek word Kosmos actually comes from an earlier root, Komeio, that means to care for or take care of.
But how do we imagine a wholeness that includes rape and physical abuse and racism, say? War and profound suffering and unimaginable loss?
The answer is that that wholeness already exists — inside ourselves. For we must remember that inside and outside mingle when we’re talking about our history and ourselves.
War, neglect, suffering, loss?
All those things are inside us.
I began writing memoir because I was afraid of what was inside me, and I wanted to learn to embrace it and hold it in my arms and stroke its sides and feel what it was like. I wanted to touch it. Ursula Le Guin has a line about “the black center of the pain.” I wanted to touch this “black center of the pain” — to know it? I don’t know, to get inside it? To comprehend it and to somehow love it.
I wanted to touch this hot fierce ugly place in me. It had brutality and the yearning for connection and sadness and tenderness and hurt somehow all connected to it, and it was squalid and had hair and fangs and teeth in its throat and other misshapen misbegotten features, but I somehow felt an affection for it.
When I started I could only touch it by writing memoir.
But I’m glad I began touching it because it was the only way to make contact with myself.
If we don’t feel the unbearable emotions that are in us we don’t get to feel the good ones, either.
© Donna Minkowitz 2012