MYTHS ABOUT MEMOIRS

There is a memoir myth floating around that I’d love to deflate. The myth is this: the harder and more harrowing the life (or incident), the better the memoir. Before I reach for a pin and poke into the skin of that belief, however, I must pause and concede that some of the most celebrated memoirs of our day—The Glass Castle, My Year of Magical Thinking, Angela’s Ashes, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Wave, Wild—all have profound tragedy at their core. What makes these books great memoirs, though, is not the scale of the tragedies they recount, but rather the writing that has sculpted and chiselled and scraped and carved and sanded and blended and redefined and refined those stories into exquisitely wrought works of art. This behind-the-scenes work—(think years of balled-up paper piling up in a corner alongside mountains of snotty Kleenexes)—is often overlooked because a) who wants to talk about snotty Kleenexes, and b) it is the content of the stories that tends to get all the attention.

I am sometimes approached at the book-signing table after a reading by people eager to tell me some variation of “You think you had an interesting life. You should hear about my childhood. Now there's a book...” If I don't manage to duck under the table fast enough, I am often apprised of the harrowing personal story, but I try to nip these experiences as close to the bud.

 

 

Because our experiences are just hunks of clay. Some hunks are bigger, some are full of colours, some have grit, others are smooth, but that's all they are: clay. Great big ugly hunks of it. The transformation of this material into story, into books, depends not upon the clay itself (although some is easier to work, granted), but upon the tools, the craft, the grunt work and the inspiration available to facilitate that elusive passage from object to art.

At the beginning of every live workshop I offer, we begin by going around the table and introducing ourselves and a bit about the subject of our writing. Inevitably, at some point in these introductions, someone will look sheepish and begin their introduction by saying, "well, my story isn't as interesting as everyone else's..." And then--also inevitably--they will give us a short summary of their story that leaves the whole room gobsmacked. Happens almost every time.

It's not that their lives were particularly harrowing or exotic or adventurous. They might never have left the town where they grew up. But their telling of their story is so compelling we are all left salivating for more.

 

One year, I was one of the readers for the annual CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Over the course of several months, I had to read and rate (in a complex system: thumbs-up or thumbs-down) about 250 short essays. Many, if not most, of these submissions were memoirs of some kind: stories about childhood misadventures, illness, abuse, recollections of family dinners and arguments, sketches of aging parents.

 

There were many excellent stories, and as I pared down my ‘thumbs-up’ stack to the requisite twelve selections, what struck me was this: the subject didn’t matter—not at all. What mattered was what the writer did with what they had. A harrowing account of a peripatetic childhood involving sixteen schools from Seattle to Siberia was no more impressive than a story about a toenail if the writing of the former did not have the strength to get us through one school, let alone sixteen, and the language of the latter shimmered and spiralled off the page. (By the way, this is pure invention. There were no stories about Siberian schools or toenails.)

There is no doubt that having a rich and interesting childhood is priceless fodder for a great memoir (read Alexandra Fuller!), but the two things aren’t as immediately interchangeable as people might assume. It isn't the impossible hardship within a story that is compelling, but the quiet carpentry of language that frames, buttresses and lifts a literary castle out of what was once an enormous slag heap.

I'll provide links to several of the CBC stories that have either won or been finalists. You'll see what I mean. They are simple stories, beautifully told. May they inspire you: http://www.cbc.ca/books/literaryprizes/nonfiction/