Look in the mirror. And tell the story.
To write or not to write the memoir is a topic often bandied about; and usually what’s discussed or debated are the ethics of such an endeavor. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces is probably the best-known controversy in recent publishing history. He created a national scandal, even involving Oprah, by pushing the envelope on the ethics of telling the truth. Lauren Slater purposely challenges our notions of truth versus embellishment versus downright deception, in her book Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, by questioning whether fact equals truth, or is just one by-product of many that delivers a truth. Charles Mingus’ Beneath the Underdog doesn’t read like memoir at all, but like the most artful turn of poetry, at once urbane and plebeian, which has begged the question: Just how “creative” is his memoir? Yes, loads have been written and discussed on the subject.
I confess to being baffled at all the uproar Frey’s book created. I once wrote a novel, a piece of fiction, that was told in first person from a child’s standpoint. And at one juncture in its development I had toyed with the playful enough conceit of calling it a biography “as told to Angela Carole Brown.” And with, frankly, never the intent to genuinely deceive a public, as it would all, by design, come out in the wash, and just be this piece of fiction turned on fiction’s ear. But at the time I was considering it, the idea seemed harmless enough while achieving that sense of urgency that a true story intrinsically has on the psyche. It never even occurred to me that such a conceit could be somehow profoundly damaging to culture, as I am someone who believes that truth does not always equal fact. A universal truth can be unveiled in the very best of fiction. So, yes, I was a bit puzzled over the degree of James Frey’s “crime.” Yes, he exaggerated his story. What exactly did that take away from us?
One of the rumors I’d heard throughout this scandal was that Frey had originally submitted his manuscript to the publisher as fiction, because though it had come from his own experience he admitted to greatly embellishing, and therefore thought it was best to submit it that way, and that it was his editor who suggested it would be more marketable as a memoir. Whether or not that rumor is true, I think the greater point here is just how easy it is for a “true story” to be rendered true, false, real, deception, whatever, merely by the way in which it is framed. And that perhaps Truth isn’t subject to perception and window dressing, but is the oak beneath it.
I have my own quandary with the memoir, but it looks nothing like the above. Because though, as I’ve said, I never really saw the injury in James Frey’s “true” story, this article is not about to be some confession that I , too, have written a lie and called it memoir. No, I have not done so. And I’m not saying, by my take on the Frey scandal, that I’m a proponent of deception. He exaggerated some details. A memoir is supposed to be the truth. I get that. Only that perhaps Frey’s deception really didn’t merit the public slaughter it received. He wasn’t writing a history book. He was sharing his own personal experience for the greater purpose of the message it had to offer.
I only even bother to mention this particular avenue of the dialogue on memoir, and my take on it, because to write a piece on the memoir and not to acknowledge its most road-tread of avenues would be to plant an elephant right in this room. And no, I never did publish the “biography as told to Angela Carole Brown,” nor in its pre-published state have I remained with the idea of that conceit. To be honest, the reason I abandoned the idea (which was only a momentary entertaining anyway) is because such a gimmick would only distract from a story I believe is compelling on its own merits. Its day will come.
Here, finally, is my quandary. As a writer, I am primarily a novelist. It’s only been in recent years that I have even begun to entertain the notion of the memoir. And what I know about myself is that my issues with self-value have often created a twisted knot of identity assertion and confusion whenever I have entertained that notion.
Simply put, I’ve lived in the belief, for my entire writing life, that memoir was reserved for people in the public eye. After all, why would anyone’s story be interesting to a total stranger unless it was that total strangers already know who you are, and this is, after all, a culture of fame-worship? The irony here is that most of the memoirs I’ve read were written by writers who had not been especially well-known prior to a publisher finding something powerful in their story and taking it on. And yet, the belief in me seems to be gravely deep-seated, and likely more a reflection of my own self-worth than anything.
I’ve generally tended to journal. But I’ve never been that person who opens the notebook ritualistically at the end of every day lived, dates the log entries, and into the golden years can boast volumes upon volumes of my life on paper. No. It’s been erratic and sporadic at best. Something just hits me as worthy of documenting. And I may not be hit again for several years.
The first of those incidents in my life that I felt strongly enough about documenting, in a way that I could easily envision as a book, was the death of my mother. It was, however, almost a decade after her passing before I felt clear enough to unfold it in the written form. It’s a book that I’ve more or less finished, though I’m not quite ready to put it into the world yet, and the reasons are more personal than they are about marketing and pacing strategies.
What continues to fascinate me is that the entire time I was writing it, a balls-to-the-wall battle was going on between my two selves: the Left Self, we’ll call her, who argued that everyone has a story, and every story has value not only for the one living it, but in the written form to be shared with others; that every story has a lesson, a light bulb, a dawning, to offer, if written with authenticity and purity of goal. Every story has universality.
Right Self argued that no one cares about your story if you haven’t already made a name for yourself; that our present culture just doesn’t operate any other way. And who do you think you are, anyway, to think anyone should care about your story? That it’s only delusions of grandeur and self-importance that would make any writer think that her unknown life holds any interest for the average reader of books. So stop being so narcissistic and wallowing up your own ass, and write a great piece of fiction, instead, that will be universal enough to resonate with an audience.
Well, fiction IS what I’ve generally tended to write. And while I’ve always been a proponent of the idea that (though fictional) a great novel carries truth within it, just as I said above, I also believe that memoir is a very different animal indeed, and has a place. The question for me became, does it have a place documenting Joe Blow’s ordinary life?
While these two Selves warred, I trudged forward, anyway, with my first stab at memoir. Because something in me believed that my story had a message for the world. One about the layered complexity of the mother/daughter dynamic. One that examines grief in all its nuances and bumps.
Right Self, of course, just kept whispering, “self-indulgent. Who cares! You aren’t the first to write about grief. And only the grief of Joan Didion or Frank McCourt or Edwidge Danticat is going to fetch an audience. Go work yours out in therapy.”
Right Self had a point. But I kept on writing, kept on trying to defend Left Self’s creed.
Since the writing of my grief memoir, which still sits on the proverbial shelf, I’ve written one other, not counting all those journal entries over the years of isolated mini-stories and experiences, which has been published. I felt a little more qualified to write that one, though that idea discombobulates my brain because the fact is I am qualified to write about any part of my life. It’s my life. Who knows it better? Yet clearly I am still being influenced by Right Self in determining whether I have a worthy story, and by extension a worthy life. Isn’t that really what’s going on, Angela? So I guess what I mean to say is that I was finally writing about something that might count as sensational and unique in the eyes of a society that craves sensational and unique, whereas death and loss and grief is not especially.
I’m truly bothered that I allow myself to reduce my merits to that graph; but, well, there it is. The point of all this (all this being a good chunk of why I write) is to work that out. I’ve already been writing, already producing content. Now I’m just bobbing around in the waters of trying to get read, and trying to figure out the puzzle of how to get that done when I am not Joan Didion.
In any case, my unique story (the second stab at memoir) is that I donated a kidney to someone who might’ve died without it. I saved a life. This wasn’t done for sensationalism, but it was sensational, in every sense of the word, and in anyone’s book. Yet what I wrote about was not the “hair-raising” or “breathtaking” aspect of such a deed. All the adjectives any good sell-line MUST have these days. The real story is about how the deed managed to save my life too, as I had been living in a profound spiritual malaise at the time this need presented itself. And so it is the story of an ordinary and flawed human being struggling through the landmines of life. Not about heroism.
And that’s when I realized that I was writing a book, yet again, that had Right Self’s eyes rolling.
“Who cares about your self-exploration!”
Right Self is mean. But then so is the world.
I also now really understand my relatively new penchant for writing about myself, after years of writing fiction. Because when I look back on the grief memoir that sits on the shelf, waiting for polishing – and courage – I realize that my flaws as a human being are not only on parade in that one too, just like with the kidney book, but truly are the nucleus of all my stories, it seems. And it is suddenly clear to me that the gravity of my need to tell MY stories exists as a way of granting permission for my life to be made valid, and my flaws to be expunged if not transformed.
The act of storytelling, and my own stories specifically, may well be of no interest to anyone who doesn’t personally know me, but it is first and foremost, for me, an act of healing.
Now here’s where I will chest-spread. I also believe that such an act of storytelling requires a special kind of bravery. And I think what separates the women from the girls is the ability to resist self-aggrandizement in the writing, to look in the mirror, and to tell the story.
Of course, there are those who would say that the very instinct to write a memoir, in and of itself, is pretty self-aggrandizing. Well, that’ll have to be. It still requires walking a road many would shudder away from.
I read quite a bit of memoir when I was preparing for writing my first one, especially those dealing with grief. There were the ones I was floored by, like Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and the Lauren Slater book. These were examples of startling perspicacity, the very seed of the brave and gnarly self-reveal.
And then there were the ones that were so much “Isn’t my life blessed? Even with all its precious dilemmas? Don’t you wish it was yours?” that I could barely get through them without choking on the propaganda. I won’t name them; I’m not interested in being cruel. But they were such obvious cases of fear and inability to see the pearl in authentic confrontation with the shadow that I felt deeply for the writers, if not the writing.
William Giraldi speaks in a recent Poets & Writers issue, an article on Louise Gluck, of knowing oneself en route to becoming oneself. That “the facts of any life are impotent and ineffectual until literature intercedes, until it takes hold of those facts and twists them into the light, casting a refraction that allows us to glimpse them anew.”1
From the same article comes a quotation from Stanley Kunitz: “The empty ones are those who do not suffer their selfhood.” 2
I see both of these sentiments as revering the act of vigilant self-inquiry and the level of courage it takes to face Self, and to mean that only through that kind of bravery can any writing truly arrive at an important place.
So, my question is, could bravery possibly count as a worthy enough star in the memoirs of the unknown? Might that be my sole hope for believing that I could tell my stories to an audience that would bother with me?
Or is the better question: Should I care?
Maybe I should just be writing. And healing. And sharing the experience. Because the experience of leaping out from a prison of the internal through words is like nothing else I can describe. For all the criticism that both of these writers have received in their writing careers, I imagine that James Frey and Lauren Slater, both, understand that sense of liberation. And I suspect there are resonant ears and eyes out there, just waiting for me and others like me, hungry for a tale that could very well be their own, for what it might dare to examine. We just need to find each other.
And then, to be able to let go of all else.
Alas, my running theme in life.
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Notes / Works Cited
1. 2. Poets & Writers, Sept/Oct 2014 Issue; Internal Tapestries by William Giraldi.
Angela Carole Brown is the author of three published books, The Assassination of Gabriel Champion, The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver, and Trading Fours, and has produced several albums of music and a yoga/mindfulness CD. Bindi Girl Chronicles is her writing blog. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram & YouTube.
I’m lucky to have read early drafts of both your mentioned pieces and can’t wait to read the final versions. You really are a marvelous writer. The one visual of the mentally challenged boy dancing with music notes has stuck with me since…gosh, 1986? That’s powerful writing! David
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Thank you! It took some further investigating to remember what piece you’re talking about. I’m beyond honored that you even remember it! Of the two manuscripts I mention in this article, one is already published. “The Kidney Journals: Memoirs of a Desperate Lifesaver.”