Genzlinger’s piece is called “The Problem With Memoirs” and opens with the memorable line, “[a] moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.”
What follows is a laughably predictable rant against memoirs by ordinary people. A(nother) pedantic man would like all of us regular folks, people whose lives are (in his estimation) unremarkable, to stop thinking that we matter enough to put words to paper (or screen). He claims that worthy memoirists “are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.”
And of course he is talking about books; memoir that appears on pages, bound together and placed on shelves. But since I, too, am a memoirist (albeit of the digital, short-form sort), I have thoughts about this. Many, many thoughts. I want to explain, but there is too much, so I will sum up.
There is plenty of crappy memoir out there, just as there are lousy books of fiction, history, science, or any other genre. To dismiss a whole genre as self-obsessed and silly because some books in the genre are self-obsessed and silly seems a bit……self-obsessed and silly. Online, the percentage of crap goes way up because, for most of us, there are no agents, editors, and publishers pushing us to clean things up or giving us thoughtful feedback before our words are public. But still, there are a great many of us, even here online, who take our craft very seriously, who strive to create something worthwhile from the raw material of ordinary lives.
I love memoir precisely because its writers are ordinary people living ordinary lives. If they experienced or did something extraordinary, that’s great, but it’s not what really draws me to their words. The facts of experience are not nearly as important to me as my connection to those experiences.
When Carter was three years old and I was beginning to understand what it meant to be the mother of a child with disabilities, I read dozens of memoirs by other parents raising kids with special needs. I read memoirs by parents whose kids had Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, fragile X syndrome, bilateral perisylvian polymicrogyria, autism, Down’s syndrome, extreme prematurity, and mental illness. I inhaled books at an astonishing rate because I didn’t understand what this meant for me, this being-a-mother-to-a-disabled-child. By reading about what it meant for other people, I began to learn what it meant for me.
Then, I discovered the world of blogs, where people are writing memoir in real-time, sharing life as it happens. For a person who lives and breathes stories, thoughtful personal blogs are like crack. Writing a personal blog and having people come read it is like crack served up with a side of the finest chocolate to be consumed after an evening of mind-blowing sex. (Which is not to be interpreted to mean that, because I write such a blog, I want to live without chocolate or sex. I do not.)
The fundamental misunderstanding about memoir is that it is strictly a naval-gazing enterprise. At its best, memoir (book, article, essay, blog) is about uncovering the commonalities that exist under the surface of the facts. What happened to you is not as important as how you felt. What you did is not as important as why (unless you were a creep who hurt people and you are writing to justify your behavior, in which case you can have neither my time nor my money). When you bare your soul, I can see the ways that we are the same. We can connect.
After I shared about my struggle with trichotillomania, people came to say, “I understand.” Most of those people did not themselves have trichotillomania, but they understood the feelings under it. When I read what other people write about their own lives, that shock of recognition is what I’m looking for. It might be something that makes me laugh, or it might make me squirm, and occasionally it makes me weep, but ultimately what I want is a connection.
When I read what Alexandra wrote about pre-mourning, I felt my own, similar, sadness.
When I read what Guilty Squid wrote about her error pages and the middle-of-the night obsessions that drove her to create them, I laughed.
When I read what Casey wrote about the devastating darkness of depression, I wept.
When I read what Barnmaven wrote about the joyful/fearful experience of new love, I remembered.
I could go on for hours – connections made, understanding gained, hurts healed, joy discovered, all with “unremarkable” (but so very remarkable to me) people.
Isolation is the disease of our time. Connection is the cure. If, as the NY Times book reviewer said, the memoir genre is “absurdly bloated,” perhaps it is because we crave connection, an understanding of others’ lives and a new understanding of ourselves.
In other news, my piece Contrary to the Natural Order is featured at Indie Ink today. If you haven’t read it yet, please to be enjoying it now. And even if you have read it before, come on over for a visit anyhow. Those words have much of my heart in them; to have them so well received is an honor and I am humbled and grateful.