Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Genre Envy: Memoir Week

April is National Poetry Month, and last week was Memoir Week at my favorite online magazine, Slate. (I guess we should get up a petition: maybe the fiction folks can get the crumb of a weekend: Weekend of Stories that Aren’t True and Aren’t Written in Stanzas; isn’t it the least we deserve? It’s not as though I’m advocating “2008: Year of the Novel.”)
But moving beyond my pathetic genre-envy…plenty of people had interesting things to say about memoir. The question Slate posed is one that I know many writers (fiction and non-) grapple with:

“How do you choose to alert people who appear in your books that you are writing about them—or do you not alert them at all? If you do, do you discuss the book with family members and friends while the work is in progress? How do you deal with complaints from people who may remember events differently than you?”

The responses—from memoirists as varied as Frank McCourt, Mary Karr, Sean Wilsey—were fascinating. I mean, I guess there’s a reason I write fiction, where people who may or may not be real can be hidden by that thin veil of, “just fiction!” But those people are tough.

Here’s what Rich Cohen said (He's the author of Sweet and Low: A Family Story, a memoir about the family of the man who invented the sugar packet and Sweet’N Low.):

“Hemingway once said something to the effect that there were many stories he could not write until a lot of people had died. So he was waiting. I am a fan of Hemingway, especially the early 'Up in Michigan'-type stories that seem the most autobiographical, so I always thought it was a shame that either 1) those people did not die sooner; (instead of more stories about Petoskey, we got Islands in the Stream and The Dangerous Summer) or 2) he did not break his rule. Because while you are waiting for someone to die, you might just die yourself, either by falling off a ladder, or putting the barrel of a shotgun in your mouth. …

“This book was the most painful piece of personal writing I've done—because it deals with the big dark secrets in the back of the mind of my family—so I decided, while working on it, to twist the Hemingway rule. I would not wait to write until everyone had died. I would write as if everyone had died long ago. You would be surprised what a good way this is to work.”

Or this from My Lives: An Autobiography author Edmund White, after publishing a memoir seen as a betrayal by a former lover and dear friend, who hasn’t forgiven him or reconciled in the 20 months since the book’s publication in England:

"Would I do it over again? Yes, since it is one of my strongest pieces of writing—and that's the kind of monster every real writer is."

Is that true; are we all monsters? If we’re not a monster, are we not a “real writer?” I wish these sorts of questions were more easily dismissed.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.