Saturday, September 16, 2006

On Memoir…Documenting The Truth

It took a few days of contemplation in-between preschool drop offs, trips to the grocery store and preparing school lunches, before my thoughts started to take shape on the decision not to capture (record) and then potentially podcast or transcribe the upcoming literary salon in NYC, featuring authors Jennifer Lauck, Kathryn Harrison, Mary Morris and Jo Ann Beard discussing memoir. I sense it is going to be a brilliant event, but due to geography as well as previous commitments on the opposite coast, I just can't be there for it or I would have hopped on a plane.

Beyond the personal sadness, the disappointment, this subject seems so timely and important that the decision to not document the discussion and make it available somehow, in my opinion, feels like such a mistake, a lost opportunity. But it will not be documented. It will not be archived. It will live in its glorious moment of the now and then, poof, vanish into a memory for the handful of folks fortunate enough to be in the room. Perhaps a few anecdotes will be written up and linger on someone's blog, but the exchange of dialogue, the synergy, the lessons revealed will be lost forever.

The salon as described on Jennifer Lauck's blog:
"We will be talking on the hot, hot, very hot controversy over truth in memoir and how it is for us to write about our lives and the lives of our families. We'll also be talking about how others respond to our truth and the challenges we face writing memoir. This is a great opportunity to meet with women, struggling with these questions…"

First of all, while I totally respect people's privacy and uncomfortability being recorded, I think some clarity about what will be discussed might be helpful. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but from reading the above description it sounds like this panel is going to focus on questions about the PROCESS of writing memoir and its aftermath, as opposed to the CONTENT, such as, what it's like to delve in and excavate a deeply personal story, reveal secret truths, discuss what "truth" is as it pertains to memoir, how memoir-izing "truth" changes the facts, how much "artistic license" is there in memoir before it becomes something else, what going public with private material feels like, how others react to it especially family members and those written about, and when the content is received, how it feels to be judged not only on your "work" writing it, but also, on your life as you remember it.

To me, this discussion is not so much about the CONTENT of what happened in the memoirs, (the stories themselves), as it is a panel discussing the PROCESS of excavation, working through the fear of going to those dark places and "telling the family secrets" or "breaking the code of silence," and with it potentially risking certain support or loyalty. It is, hopefully, discussing publishing this type of work, the roadblocks in that process especially for women, what it feels like to "go wide with your story," to be so exposed to the world, and also how to deal with the inevitable remarks, reviews, commentary, praise, or backlash--both personally and publicly--that arise as a result of going public with sensitive material.

I personally want to know how Kathryn Harrison dealt with the outrageous, even vicious reviews of "The Kiss," and how she survived that both professionally and personally. Could I have been that tough-skinned? Or would I have curled up into the fetal position and never written another paragraph? I want to know what type of legal protection there is if a slander suit arises between the author and one of her "characters," a topic one or more of these authors might be able to address. How does one get their memoir published if publishers keep saying it is a dying genre or too hot to handle right now?

In light of the recent determination that James Frey and Random House will be held financially responsible for selling misrepresented material prior to the Oprah brouhaha, (ie. his memoir wasn't completely factual), it opens the door to a whole lot of questions about truth, memoir and liability.

And yet memoirs continue to fly off the shelves, get turned into movies, blogs are rapidly increasing into the millions, and reality TV makes up a larger percentage of programming than written entertainment. There definitely is a demand for "real" material, personal stories, accounts, experiences, people's opinions, people's "truths," whether you like them, agree with them, or not. This IS a hot topic. This IS current.

On the benefit of a panel discussion
If I want advice, I can ask a friend. I can go to a teacher and hear what he or she has to say. I can post my query online and wait for feedback. But to invite a discussion between 4 published memoirists combined with open audience Q&A, is a rare opportunity to hear more than one point of view, as well as shared opinions, opposing thoughts, advice and other insights sparked by the group dynamic. It is dialogue, the free exchange of ideas and perspectives offered from writers who have already been through it. It is a collaborative perspective on the matter. It is an important group discussion. I hope there are many more.

On the benefit of documentation
Consider this. If journals, letters, and stories passed on verbally from generation to generation, copies of speeches and course material were not saved and archived, a huge chunk of literature simply would not exist. The amount of books that would be "lost" would be devastating. The insight into the artistic process, what a certain artist went through while creating and exposing his work, and any lessons shared, is priceless information to future aspiring artists. Useless if not documented, preserved and made available.

As far as writing memoir goes, memoir is in itself documenting the truth. It is validating your truth by telling your story sometimes after a lifetime of holding it in. Many times it goes against those who ostensibly were supposed to love and protect you. It takes a great deal of courage. I understand the fear and hesitancy to do this. The exposure of sensitive, often brutal subject matter is difficult. I get that and I compassionately understand.

I too struggled when a very personal essay of mine got published. I wondered why I had put it out there. I also took my time with the decision to go public with my private blog. I resist writing my childhood memoir even though I know it can help people. Published bits of it already have. It isn't comfortable. It isn't light subject matter. I feel raw and vulnerable on the page. It is weird to know people are reading my life. It is even weirder to read others debate your life as if they know you when they don't. If I could hear how others more experienced survived this process and any sage advice they might be able to share, it would be tremendously helpful to me.

I do see that when I have been able to open up and let my own written words reach an audience, in essence, when I have set the story free, it has touched people. It resonates. It gives others the strength to not feel so alone, and to have the courage to confront and work through their own life. It is potentially a healing process for everyone. We help each other. We need each other's stories, dialogue and support to process and make sense of our lives. That is why this panel discussion seems so important to me. That is why I do not want their words to vanish.

I hope that this salon, whether archived or not, is just the beginning of an ongoing open discussion about memoir and the process of excavating and exposing our truths. As we shed our past, becoming more authentic as individuals, may we continue to find ways to connect and support each other in the process.

As always, I invite your comments and feedback.


Michelle O'Neil said...

And why aren't you going?

Everything you say in this post points to the word "go!"'s none of my biz...but maybe don't shut the door on it just yet?

Lee Wolfe Blum said...

Awesome thoughts and insights on Memoir. Especially when I have been getting that kind of feedback from publishers lately. They are AFRAID to touch memoir b/c of all those reasons. And...sometimes I am afraid to write memoir for all the reasons you mentioned! Very honest post...thank you.

One question...why can't the salon at least be archived in a written form? Then we don't have to hear the audience members voices and thus they can remain anonymous??

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Tanya, I love your passion! I'm racking my brain trying to figure out how to make everyone happy (story of my life). There's got to be a way to make the writers and guests comfortable, not feel exposed, and still capture the essence of the evening. Suggestions?

Go Mama said...

Michelle, I'd love to go, but I will be hosting a table of friends at another literary event in LA.

Lee, I couldn't agree with you more. I even offered to transcribe the evening.

Carrie, my thought is that at the very least have several of you write up some "coverage" of the main highlights of the night on your blogs. This way we will get several different perspectives. Perhaps even the authors themselves could each write up a quick recap and post if they are so inclined.

Perhaps for the future we could come up with another format that invites different guest authors to dialogue about their process...create a memoir "hub," an ongoing interactive virtual tour of sorts?
Just spitballing here, of course.

Any other ideas?