Richard Gilbert asks and answers an intriguing question today: What gives memoirists the right to share their stories?
As you read it, I invite you to compare your own experience as a reader and writer and then to comment at the end.
What gives memoirists the right to share their stories?
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.—James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
Once someone rejected something I’d written by saying it was “too personal.” This meant, I understood, not that it was too embarrassingly revealing but that it was only of interest to me personally. Not dramatic enough for a mass audience. Boring? Maybe.
Actually the person’s complete phrase was, “Still too personal.” At first the “still” threw me. Still? The #@*$! had never seen it before! Then I saw that what made the terse phrase a long, warm, personal rejection by New York publishing standards was the word “still.” It carried this meaning: it can become publishable by becoming of wider interest. (With more work. Of some kind. Or so I chose to interpret the rejection.)
How do we as writers know that our memoirs and personal essays are at all interesting to anyone else? What gives us the right to send them into the world? I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot. And I’m going to try to answer it even though I feel, deep down, that I can’t. But surely it’s worth trying because some among the legions of memoirists and essayists who are writing about their lives do wonder.
I didn’t myself, not when I started my memoir. I had nary a doubt about my story when I began writing seven years ago. I’m a different writer now, as I polish the book’s sixth version, than when I began. That guy, he took for granted that he had an interesting story to tell. He told a friend, I remember, “It’s the world’s problem if I’m no good. Not mine. Not if I enjoy doing this.” His technique maybe was shaky, but he was chipper and in good voice. Sometimes I really miss him. Had this issue occurred to him, which it wouldn’t—a doubt so foreign then—he’d have thrown out ideas with confidence. Not me. He’d been a successful journalist and book publisher. I’ve had some success publishing memoir and personal essays but have had many pieces rejected, too.
So my insights are tentative. It seems to me a memoir must have intrinsic interest, from drama or from appeal to the intellect. Alas, intrinsic interest is in the eye of the beholder. Second, I guess, the piece of writing must display technical mastery. Again, partly a matter of taste, since a bestseller for a New York trade house likely would have been rejected by an intellectual or academic press that favors complex, nonlinear structures. Third, perhaps, would be a certain depth of inquiry, which comes from perspective on the story as much as anything
These standards obviously are so partial, if not useless, that I seize on essays that explore this “So What?” issue. Most do so glancingly. But Brenda Miller did so incidently yet completely in her wonderful “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle October/November 2011 edition. Miller emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn raw material from their lives into shapely stories whose form protects the writers, delights readers, and transforms experience into art. She writes:
I have great respect and admiration for those writers who are willing to risk something in their work; as we all know, powerful writing must risk something in one way or another. And it can certainly be daunting to speak when silence is so much more comfortable. But I’ve come to see that at some point—some crucial point—we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form. We are hammering out parallel plot lines, not plumbing the depths of our souls, but as a collateral to that technical work the soul does indeed get tapped and gushes forth.
Miller is writing about using difficult material, but her point about using “perspective to translate experience into artifact” is what I’m talking about: the primacy of craft in transforming material that’s too personal—in my critic’s sense: not widely interesting enough—into a narrative compelling for a general audience.
As I feel myself slipping into abstraction here, I think of what’s meant by writing that’s too “raw.” It may not be so much that there’s too much emotion but that it appears to be unprocessed, as if the writer has not yet learned from her experience. And so, the reader might wonder, what is the wisdom she has come to impart from her drama or trauma? The more reflective writer uses form—words, sentences, paragraphs, space breaks, structure—as well as musing to convey her message. So craft both makes things easier for the reader to absorb and gives him relationships among the essay’s elements, including the relationship between form and content, to ponder. If one’s story plods, maybe there’s too much connecting and extraneous material and not enough artifice and inquiry. The personal writer, in Miller’s words, must find “refuge in literary technique, in form, in metaphor.”
As editor of Bellingham Review, Miller spearheads the selection each year of a winner of the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction from over 400 submissions. “[U]nfortunately,” she writes, “most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of ‘this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.’ This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.” Winners, she says, “usually focus not only upon their content, but on the nature of storytelling itself. They are not ‘trying’ to be brave. They are allowing the essay to be brave for them.”
Praising Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” Miller notes that this memoir essay of marital woe opens with a bear. Simpson cuts back and forth in the braided narrative between the bear, which threatens her and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her dissatisfaction with her mate. Miller writes:
I know it can seem a paradox: that writings imbued with qualities of what we recognize as “honest” or “brave” may actually be so strong because they focus away from that material directly. This refocus can be on form, yes, but it can also hone in on details that exist at an oblique slant to the center of the piece, such as that bear. These essays employ what I call “peripheral vision”: turning the gaze to focus on something that seems peripheral to the emotional center or ostensible topic. Instead of facing your “stuff” head on, you turn away from it, zero in on something that has fluttered up on the side, and see what angle it gives you. In this way we sidle up to the real material and actually find new meaning in it—artistic meaning.
So too, for me, the answer to the cruelly succinct “So what?” question is craft. Which is the only answer I can imagine to this “too personal” riddle. Because I don’t know how to help anyone else find, and barely know how to nurture in myself, the place from whence art arises, that wellspring below mere ego that produces work with heart. What to read, where to go, what to do, whom to love? Craft isn’t nearly as important as spirit, but neither one by itself is sufficient. And we can discuss craft, which is the gateway to art.
Or as Miller put it so beautifully, “Through enacting the practiced ritual of writing—writing with verve and focus and skill—we keep ourselves safe, and we keep our stories safe, and we extend this sanctuary to others.”
Richard Gilbert is completing a memoir, writes about memoir at his blog Narrative, (highly recommended for all serious students of the genre) and teaches writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. His memoir essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Memoir (and), Orion, River Teeth, and SNReview.
Ask Richard a question. Be personal!