People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Isolation, Connection, and the Infinitely Recurring Memoir Controversy

This post by Alex at Late Enough led me to this post by Neil at Citizen of the Month which led me to this piece by Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times Sunday Book Review.

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.

There’s nothing about a memoir by a person who accomplished something “noteworthy” that could matter more than that.

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.

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18 comments to Isolation, Connection, and the Infinitely Recurring Memoir Controversy

  • Beautiful post, Adrienne! I LOVED it and agree with you 100% Or more! Connection is what most of us bloggers seem to be looking for and those of us who are extra blessed … find it! 🙂
    Beth recently posted..Attention World- This is NOT Okay!

  • You have Beautifully, intelligently expressed how I feel about blogs, “For a person who lives and breathes stories, thoughtful personal blogs are like crack.”

  • You know what I love about you? Is that while everyone else probably saw just a silly post, you know that I really was compelled by my mind to do that or I would not get back to sleep.

    I love that you get me and that I’ve been so damn lucky to connect with you.

    I’m pretty freaking glad you’re my friend, you know that?

    Love you.
    GuiltySquid recently posted..My error pages that I had to put up so that I could go back to sleep

  • Thank you for mentioning me as someone unremarkably remarkable, “When you bare your soul, I can see the ways we are the same.”

    We are all so much more alike than different. I truly believe so much of this hurt, public and private would be soothed if we could just realize this instead of jumping to conclusions and judging others. *sigh*

    This is a wonderful post, thank you for writing it you equally unremarkable remarkable person.

  • Reading blogs-as-memoirs has made me much more compassionate and understanding about so many things. That mom with the screaming kid? (I don’t have kids). Now she gets a smile and a wink from me instead of judgment because I have read so many blog stories about those ordinary, extraordinary moments of shame and fear and loss of control. That’s just one example, but there are so many things I understand better because bloggers are brave enough to share their truth.

    And personally, it has given me a bigger sample size to judge my own behavior by. When something feels off, I can ask a couple hundred people, and those with a strong opinion will weigh in. I don’t always listen, but I can get a feel for whether I am off my beam or not.

    It also lets me know that I have people who like me even when I dare to tell MY truth – and they even like me more when I dig deeper and explore more and am more authentic. Sometimes I think IRL people are shocked at how open I can be – but the courage to do that comes from blogging.
    Suebob recently posted..FEEL BETTER- BRUCE!

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Casey-moosh in indy., Beth Zimmerman. Beth Zimmerman said: http://t.co/esjzNxd Isolation is the disease of our time. Connection is the cure. @NoStylePoints […]

  • I read that article as well.

    I felt discouraged somehow…even though I am not looking to write a memoir. At least not any time soon.

    But I do consider a lot of my blog memoirish.

    I completely agree with that squid up there. I feel so lucky to have you in my life. Your world has taught me feelings I didn’t know I could have and can’t place names too. And you have been such a good friend to me…even if it is through a computer screen.

    Your one of the most remarkable ordinary people I have ever come across.

    Love to you. So much.
    Katie recently posted..tiny reminder

  • One of the things I love best about blogs and memoirs, whether online or in print, is that the reveal of the human being inside the exterior helps me to recognize my own humanity, my own normality in the face of a world that tells me I am NOT normal. The more I read and begin to know how so many other people think, the more I realize that the cookie cutter stereotype we’ve all been fed is actually NOT normal.

    Dysfunction is the new normal, and boy have we got the corner on THAT particular market.
    Barnmaven recently posted..Holes

  • Adrienne

    This was such an insightful and intersting post….blogs as memoirs in real time. I want to go back now and read all the posts you commented on.

    Thank you

    that is all
    AmyLynn recently posted..Radiohead anyone

  • See, I would far rather read through the truth of someone’s genuine small victories and small troubles that are told beautifully than that of some famous person who thought being famous equated to being interesting.

    Why the hell would I care about Snooki’s rise to trashdom? Or what her philosophies on life are? I’m fairly certain they revolve around unwanted facial hair and really, I have things to do and paint-drying to supervise.

    Most people reach fame by having money or having luck. Neither of those is inherently interesting, yet their stories clog the bookshelves.

    Give me a “uninteresting” person’s memoir any day.

  • I am new to the world of self-obsessed bloggers writing what is personal and unremarkable and I am absolutely loving every moment of it.To find my voice,my love for words again after so many years of motherhood and jobs that took me away from writing, I feel blessed. I feel that even if no one follows or not a single comment is given – I will continue to tell my stories and share and be a writer. Personal blogs help connect our society when our world sometimes feels like it is falling apart. I am very lucky to have found your blog and you have a beautiful way with the words you use. Thank you.
    Karen

  • What Lori said.

    Blogging has absolutely been my cure for isolation. I don’t know where I or my grief would be if I had not learned the soothing nature of sharing my story and knowing it has been heard and maybe even understood.

    I’m going to pretend that article was never written and keep my eye on the memoir prize… an ounce of healing.
    Jessica recently posted..Why Flash Mobs Make Me Cry

  • Jen

    I love the concept of writing memoir in real time.

    I may not be of great importance to the world, but I hope that I am of great importance to my children. My words are gifts to them that they will be able to keep forever in a way previous generations never could. Maybe the fact that I don’t have to edit them down to 400 pages will cheapen the words, but I hope they will be a source of strength and love for them always. Connection not just to others now, but for them to me, in the future.

    Kudos on the Princess Bride reference.
    Jen recently posted..Finding Balance

  • I thought I’d come over here to comment already… Ah, winter “vacation” cooped up with the progeny and my brain is already resembling a spongecake.

    I agree with you about everything. I love reading memoir, and my favorite blogs are memoirish, as you so perfectly put it – memoir in real-time. Blogs like yours, like Kris’s and all the ones you’ve linked to here and so many more… that go back and forth in time from the present to the past; highlight the way the past echoes down through our present, the ways the present calls up and re-illuminates our past. I find the spark of life and connection in all the reading I do, and hope that’s what people find when they read me.

    Speaking of which, did you see my 2 Grandmother posts this past week? I finally participated in The Red Dress Club’s memoir meme and what came up was a doozy from 1966. (BTW, most of the posts linked up on that site were fabulous, by the way… as if you needed MORE blogs to read.)
    Squashedmom recently posted..Stream of Consciousness Sunday- One sleeps- the other doesn’t

  • Oh, woman.

    Somehow, always, when I’m here, you just rush the breath out of me.

    Thank you.

    I have a tear sitting on the edge of my eye right now, ready to fall.

    I love the connection that you get me. I love the feeling that you know me.

    Maybe that’s why types like us have turend to the internet.

    People in my real life tell me I “wallow.”

    But, you get it.

    I love you. In a way that I know, you understand.

    Thank you.
    Alexandra recently posted..Like A Polaroid Picture

  • People: this post, and the one before it,and the one after it, is why I subscribe to Adrienne.

    You just have to make it here, at least once a week.

    There’s no other place like it out there.
    Alexandra recently posted..Like A Polaroid Picture

  • Laura

    I am currently reading a wonderful memoir about a woman losing her husband of 47 years. The author’s desciption of grief and the insanity caused by this loss has done more to help me with the death in my family than anything else. An ordinary woman tells of an “ordinary” experience that captures the essence of what it is to be human and what we go through in losing so essential a life. I cannot disagree more with the concept that a memoir, written by a regular person, has little or less merit. The beauty and meaning is in the writing–it is what connects us to one another in a way that sustains us and allows us to remember that others understand our pain and our victories. Otherwise, why be human?

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