Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Memoirist's Guide to Writing Memoirs

Ah, Truth--you slippery electric eel, you.  Easy to talk about, hard to contain in the confines of language--unless you're writing a guide to building catalytic converters, in which case, the Truth is as simple as Step 1 followed by Step 2 followed by Step 3, etc.  But who wants to read about catalytic converters for pleasure?

Unless you work at a place where your name is embroidered on a little oval, breast-height on your coveralls, you probably want something a little more entertaining from your books--more punch, more drama, more made-up stuff.  It's no wonder people get all hazy-headed and confused when walking into bookstores these days--it's hard to tell the Real from the Fiction.  Writers like James Frey are no help whatsoever.

I've made no secret of the fact that my own novel-in-progress has, at its ground-zero center, several gallons of truth (lower-case "t").  During my deployment to Iraq in 2005, I kept a daily journal, recording in detail many of the things I saw and heard.  When it came time to sit down and start writing Fobbit, I lifted entire passages from the journal on more than one occasion, changed names, sprinkled Fiction Dust over the keyboard, and integrated a skewed version of actual events into the pages of the novel.  I'm sort of the opposite of Mr. Frey--I'm taking what really happened and calling it fiction.

From the start, Iraq has been a Stranger-Than-Fiction War.  Even though I have my journal to verify what happened, as I'm writing Fobbit, it's often hard to tell where truth ends and fiction begins.  I suspect I'm not the only writer out there be-puzzled by this sort of thing.

I'm currently reading Brock Clarke's An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, the hilarious novel with the non-fiction-sounding title.  For those who haven't had the pleasure of being immersed in Clarke's world (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?), An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England charts the misadventures of Sam Pulsifer, a young man who "accidentally" burned down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, killing two people who were in the historic home at the time.  Sam served ten years for his crime and, as the novel begins, he returns to his hometown to sort out his life and put his past behind him.  This is complicated by the fact that someone else is torching historic homes and pinning the blame on Sam.

Clarke makes the difficult process of writing humor look as easy as Wolfgang Puck turning out a cheese souffle.  Wisecracks come fast and furious in the pages of this novel and it is, without a doubt, one of the funniest books I've ever read.  Clarke's satire doesn't just bite, it gnaws on your hand until nothing remains but a soggy wad of bone, muscle and blood.

It's about as far from reality as a book without unicorns can get.  But, my point (and I do have one) is that he also snaps off some zingers about writers, writing, and the state of literary arts.  This is one of my favorite scenes, which takes place in a mega-bookstore just after Sam has encountered a book club sitting around talking about their latest selection, a memoir called Listen--a book about the Human Condition which made most of the book clubbers cry.  This excerpt begins just after the book club disperses:
I took my leave of the women...and began wandering through the bookstore proper, making my way to the memoir section.  It didn't take too long.  The memoir section, it turned out, was the biggest section by far in the whole bookstore and was, in its own way, like the Soviet Union of literature, having mostly gobbled up the smaller, obsolete states of fiction and poetry.  On the way there, I passed through the fiction section.  I felt sorry for it immediately: it was so small, so neglected and poorly shelved, and I nearly bought a novel out of pity, but the only thing that caught my eye was something titled The Ordinary White Boy.  I plucked it off the shelf.  After all, I'd been an ordinary white boy once, before the killing and burning, and maybe I could be one again someday, and maybe this book could help me do it, even if it was a novel and not useful, generically speaking.  On the back it said that the author was a newspaper reporter from upstate New York.  I opened the novel, which began, "I was working as a newspaper reporter in upstate New York," and then I closed the book and put it back on the fiction shelf, which maybe wasn't all that different from the memoir shelf after all, and I decided never again to feel sorry for the fiction section, the way you stopped feeling sorry for Lithuania once it rolled over so easily and started speaking Russian so soon after being annexed.

Anyway, I moved on to the memoir section.  After browsing for a while, I knew why it had to be so big: who knew there was so much truth to be told, so much advice to give, so many lessons to teach and learn?  Who knew that there were so many people with so many necessary things to say about themselves?  I flipped through the sexual abuse memoirs, sexual conquest memoirs, sexual inadequacy memoirs, alternative sexual memoirs.  I perused travel memoirs, ghostwritten professional athlete memoirs, remorseful hedonist rock star memoirs, twelve-step memoirs, memoirs about reading (A Reading Life: Book by Book).  There were five memoirs by one author, a woman who had written a memoir about her troubled relationship with her famous fiction-writer father; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her mother; a memoir about her troubled relationship with her children; a memoir about her troubled relationship with the bottle; and finally a memoir about her more loving relationship with herself.  There were several memoirs about the difficulty of writing memoirs, and even a handful of how-to-write-a-memoir memoirs.  A Memoirist's Guide to Writing Your Memoir and the like.  All of these made me feel better about myself, and I was grateful to the books for teaching me--without my even having to read them--that there were people in the world more desperate, more self-absorbed, more boring than I was.

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