I’m a regular listener to The New York Times Book Review Podcast. Every week I look forward to Julie Bosman’s “Notes from the Field.” In her case the field is “publishing.” In our case the field is “memoir.” And our reporter is Kathleen Friesen.
If you’ve been reading this blog regularly, you started seeing Kathleen’s comments beginning more than a year ago. Comments are the way to any blogger’s heart, and so I started clicking on Kathleen’s name to find her own blog(s)–one about organizational management and the other a contemplative photography blog, which derives its inspiration from the concept of Miksang. I hope you discover Kathleen’s quiet and deep voice, both in her blogs and in these two essays about memoir she brings to our attention.
Notes from the field from guest scout, Kathleen Friesen:
Readers of 100 memoirs may find the following items of interest:
First is Dani Shapiro’s tribute to her mentor, Esther Broner. In this short piece, Shapiro offers insight into a woman who encouraged her to write and live authentically:
From her, I learned many of the lessons that I carry with me as a teacher myself today. It’s possible to tell the truth in a way that is not wounding, but empowering. It’s possible to be a role model with no ego involved. It’s possible to be a mother and a grandmother and a novelist and a feminist and a teacher, and have all of these things feed one another, rather than be in conflict.
Who are the mentors who have paved the path for you? What lessons did they teach?
Second is Joyce Carol Oates rebuttal to Julian Barnes review of her memoir in The New York Review of Books. Oates writes, “A memoir is most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience, not a clinical, subsequent summation from what would be the “future” of the individual ….” While this may be true for her, in my experience meaningful memoirs can and do focus on memories.
I have read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking several times, but a read-through of Oates’ A Widows Story ‒ done standing in four different bookstores over a period of a week ‒ did not prompt a purchase. Didion’s spare, direct prose resonates with my own experience as a widow. Oates’ memoir contains some of the same themes, but sprawls and crawls, with fewer insights into the path of grief and mourning.
I have one quibble with Oates’ reviewers: their judgment of Oates for remarrying too soon. They suggest that this choice disqualifies her from writing a memoir about her first year as a widow. In my opinion, memoirists may choose to limit the book’s timeframe from necessity or choice. And, in my own experience, remarriage does not nullify the ongoing experience of grief and mourning, of revising ones map of the world.
Barnes asks, “So what constitutes “success” in mourning?” As readers and writers of memoir, the question is, “So what constitutes “success” in a memoir?” Is it “most helpful when it focuses upon immediate experience?”