Tag Archives: Memoir

Who will there be to talk to

There is one line in [my father’s] memoir I find particularly poignant. It is a clunky line that I wanted to fix but resisted. My father and his brother Ken had recently been talking, recollecting stories for the memoir. My father writes, “Just the other day Ken said, ‘When one of us is gone who will there be to talk to, that not having been there will understand?’” To which my father simply replies, “How true.” It is, in some fashion, the question every writer asks. How true.

Doug Bruns

That Narrative

It’s a grey ethical area for writers. Memoirists are vampires and thieves, you might say: vampires and thieves with shards of ice in their hearts. However much [Candia] McWilliam may want us to think about her story in terms of the sentences, of course we are also interested in the sense. In a prurient (or perhaps hope-filled) desire to read about how a famous novelist hit the bottle and rock bottom and then somehow got her life together again. Yes, of course that’s a deliberately clichéd version of her story and an unfair reflection of McWilliam’s rich writing. But it would be naïve to suggest the book won’t be read for that narrative.

Charlotte Higgins

You only need to tell your story

My writing students have been bringing family images to my memoir class for 20 years. They are mainly women, painfully eager to know how to use writing to make sense of their life narrative–who they are, who they once were, what heritage they were born into–and they are immobilized by the size of the task. Where to start? Where to stop? What to put in? What to leave out? How to find the story’s proper shape and sequence? How to deal equitably with all that is still unreconciled…

I sympathize with their despair; there’s just much too much stuff in the cluttered attic of memory. I can only offer one word of salvation: Reduce! You must decide what is primary and what is secondary. You’re not required to tell everybody’s story; you only need to tell your story. If you give an honest accounting of the important people and events in your life, as you best remember them, you will also tell the story of everybody who needs to be along on the ride. Throw everything else away.

William Zinsser

The edges of the work

[T]here is a great deal of personal narrative on the Web – some of which carries over to the print world as memoirs, some of which doesn’t. I think the online work is marginally more interesting: because there it’s unclear where the edges of the work are. The reader can pull at it; writing can stretch across time and space. Granted, most of isn’t very interesting. But it does seem like we are moving into a celebrity culture, where readers tend to follow personalities rather than their writing. Maybe ten years ago Momus said that “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people,” and I think the way the web works now does tend to encourage that.

Dan Visel

12: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

I see that reviewers really didn’t like this book (see, for example, the NY Sun, the Sunday Times, the Telegraph). Keep in mind the sharp edges are tempered due to the author being beloved.

I think this is where I’m supposed to get outraged and start ranting about people reading it wrong, and so on. But honestly? I find it rather amusing, because they’re so clearly wtf? about the whole thing. Like when Murakami writes about what he thinks about while running:

What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue. … I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void. But as you might expect, an occasional thought will slip into this void. … The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. (p. 16-17)

They’re all like, “But that’s so dull!” But it’s not dull to me, because that’s exactly how it is. As is this:

I don’t even think there’s that much correlation between my running every  day and whether or not I have a strong will. I think I’ve been able to run for more than twenty years for a simple reason: It suits me. … Human beings naturally continue doing things they like, and they don’t continue what they don’t like. (p. 44)

It’s a great illustration of the importance of audience. In the opening paragraph of the NY Times review, Geoff Dyer writes:

I’m guessing that the potential readership for “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” is 70 percent Murakami nuts, 10 percent running enthusiasts and an overlapping 20 percent who will be on the brink of orgasm before they’ve even sprinted to the cash register. And then there’s me, the zero-percenter: a non-running Murakami virgin. Oh well. The supreme test of nonfiction is that it be interesting irrespective of the reader’s indifference to the subject under discussion, and a great writer’s work is obviously beflecked with greatness whatever the occasion. So the terms of the test are clear.

Well, I’d never heard of Haruki Murakami before I picked up this book. But I do run. And I also write. And, as I noted shortly after I bought the book, I have in fact actually used running as a metaphor for writing! So when I saw WITAWITAR while browsing the memoir/bio section at Chapters (where, fyi, it was displayed face-out rather than spine-out, ahem), I knew I had to read it. In other words, I think I’m an Ideal Reader for this book, one of the (apparently*) teeny number of people who both write and run. It never would’ve occurred to me that this was a rarity, but not only does Murakami comment on it (apparently he’s popular with running mags for this reason), Peter Terzian’s LA Times review makes note of how unusual it is for writers to write about running [emphasis added]:

In a 1999 essay for the New York Times, Joyce Carol Oates drew a parallel between the tireless walker-writers of the 19th century (Coleridge, Dickens, Whitman) and the contemplative present-day jogger. “In running,” she wrote, “the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain.” An afternoon run allows Oates to untangle the structural problems that bedevil her fiction in the morning.

Oates’ essay aside, the literature of running is as thin as a mesh singlet. Running pops up in fiction and poetry from time to time, from Homer to John Updike, but the sport doesn’t easily lend itself to the dramatic. The vagaries of weather, the joint pains and the repetition of putting one foot in front of the other can’t compete with the traded blows of the boxing ring or a home run.

O rly?

While reading WITAWITAR, I started thinking that perhaps I should be writing about running—not just in one-offs, but in a more sustained way—but the idea that running can’t compete with boxing or baseball?! That’s like an outright challenge!

Oh, it’s on.

But back to the book. If the ideal audience for one’s book is miniscule, does that matter? Should one try for wider appeal? Murakami thinks not. Before he started writing, he ran a bar where he learned this:

If one out of ten was a repeat customer, then the business would survive. To put it the other way, it didn’t really matter if nine out of ten didn’t like my bar. This realization lifted a weight off my shoulders. Still, I had to make sure that the one person who did like the place really liked it. In order to make sure he did, I had to make my philosophy and stance clear-cut, and patiently maintain that stance no matter what. (p. 38)

I love the 1,000 True Fans concept (i.e. in order to make a living doing something creative, you don’t need a kajillion fans; you just need ~1,000 people who really love your work). Over at TC, I’ve been trying to start a discussion about self-/e-publishing and readers. The point I’ve been trying to make is that if the bulk of your readership consists of True Fans, it’s in your best interest to treat them well (i.e. not try to sell them crap just because you can). Murakami’s idea seems along the same lines.

Oddly, right after I bought WITAWITAR, I saw Kevin Hartnett’s essay about it at The Millions. Recommended. It’s a good essay and a much better summary of what the book’s about than my meanderings. Plus, he’s already sought out Murakami’s fiction, so he’s a step ahead of me.

*I don’t really buy that there’s so little crossover. Do you write & run?

The true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones

It is the nature of memoir and essay that memory is telling the story and these forms will never be as clean as journalism.  In the best literary nonfiction the true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones.  Those rules are developed in each individual book by each individual artist, and they should be judged that way, individually, not in a great hue and cry of moralistic oversimplification.  Yes, it is wise for writers of memoir to hew as closely as they can to the facts.  But my worry is that we will, as usual, overreact and learn too literal of a lesson.  That in rushing to rein things in we will choke off what is creative and alive in the form.

Dave Gessner

Passion for the Tedious

Memory is not a journalist’s tool. Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all he must invent himself. Like Rousseau, who wrote (at the beginning of his novelistic Confessions) that “I am not made like anyone I have ever been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence,” he must sustain, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the illusion of his preternatural extraordinariness.

Janet Malcolm

A certain kind of writing

I’ve actually been feeling kind of conflicted about the blog, because…I mean, I like it. I like having a place for readers to get together. I love the community that readers have formed there. But I am not making posts very frequently. I was when I first started. I might just have blog fatigue like everyone gets, but also I feel like it was kind of sapping my autobiographical juices, which I need to put in this other project. Blogging is wonderful, but it’s a certain kind of writing. It’s not seasoned. You haven’t sat with something and refined it over and over. It just comes out, and then it’s gone (laughs). So I’m not doing so much blogging lately, just kind of doing a minimal amount of posts to keep a connection going.

Alison Bechdel