The trouble with the memoir as confession–and I say this as a terminally-lapsed Catholic–is the idea of confession itself.
Back when I was merely a budding terminally-lapsed Catholic, I went to confession. If you’re not familiar, Catholics secret themselves into little booths that line the church walls, in order to confess their sins to a priest, as the intermediary for Jesus, the intermediary for God. Three degrees of separation, plus a privacy screen. The priest sits on one side of a dividing wall, while the confessor kneels on the other. You start by sliding open a panel to reveal the screen, which shields you from having to face the priest directly. This tradition may well have vanished since I last visited church, I seem to recall a move toward a no-screen, face-to-face style confession. Shudder the thought. What little privacy the screen did afford was imperative. It’s one thing to confess your darkness, quite another to see it reflected in a listener’s face.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned.”
So far so good.
“It has been [insert amount of time here] since my last confession.”
And this is where I started going off the rails. Because my family moved frequently, months could pass between visits to the confessional chamber. Were I to really say how long it had been since my last confession, I’d never get away with the few sins I was willing to admit.
Disobeyed mom and dad? Sure. As long as I didn’t need to get too specific. Mention taking the Lord’s name in vain? At least this made me sound honest. But… talk about stealing booze from my parents’ liquor cabinet? Nope. Masturbating? Hell, no! Wait, was that even a sin? Probably, but I didn’t feel bad enough about doing any of these things to try stopping, which I imagined was more likely the goal than the repeating of 10 Hail Marys. Repentance always means saying you’re sorry, then changing your ways.
Later, when I encountered 12-step groups, this seemed to be the case as well. Admit your problem in order to overcome it. And certainly, I’ve found it to be true that you’re only as sick as your secrets. But, really, as memoirists, are we to have none?
Nothing but the Truthiness
Of the many notable things Mary Karr says in her new book The Art of Memoir, one is this: “Changes in the novel have helped to jack up memoir’s audience,” she writes. “As fiction grew more fabulist or dystopic or hyperintellectual … readers thirsty for reality began imbibing memoir.”
It’s an interesting point, not only does it explain the huge rise in memoir, it also gives a glimpse into what we’re to be doing as memoirists. At least if you fall outside the “creative” nonfiction camp.
Here’s a little truthiness for you, I don’t even know what “creative” nonfiction is supposed to mean. As David Carr’s Night of the Gun showed—a story begins with a gun going off and then proceeds, reportage style, to offer eye-witness accounts denying there ever was any gun at all—memory is like beauty. It’s in the mind of the beholder. Or rememberer.
Much of what passes for creative nonfiction is, in fact, flights of fancy in the style of the dystopic, or hyperintellectual. Or so-called humor. It may be categorized with literary nonfiction, all of which are distinctions that fail to recognize, there is no such thing as the unbridled truth. Whether a thing is true or not depends on who has the audience at any given time. Because we lie to ourselves. How else could we live with our own wretched behavior? And this is exactly why we like memoir.
The job of the memoirist is to unpack the mysteries, and put them on view for all to see. How this is done is the very art itself, it’s all creative.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of the book Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and a Saint, is woman, a preacher no less, who inspires me deeply. She says, “we must write from our scars. Not our wounds.”
And this is where the memoirist can get in trouble. Our stories touch lives beyond our own. In my case, I meant my first book to be a tome of witty, observer-style essays about life in Qatar, a place where women wrapped head-to-toe in black float through shopping malls, right past ads for Victoria’s Secret lingerie. But then my husband ended our marriage over the telephone, from another country, and writing a book about how messed up it was for women in the Muslim world seemed disingenuous at best. Even their divorce tradition, where a man may repeat three times over the course of three months the word talaq—I divorce you—seemed kinder. My ex only had to say it the one time.
Achtung, or Gevaarlijke, or Danger Will Robinson
Including other people in your story is serious business. Just ask Nick Flynn, author of the beautiful memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. In his 20s he wrote a fictional tale including a character resembling his mother. She mentioned the story in the suicide note she left behind after fatally shooting herself. And that was fiction.
Yet Flynn went on to write memoir, including both his mother and still very-much-alive father. One of the reasons his writing is so moving is for his ability to portray his seriously damaged parents in a loving way.
Or, as Cheryl Strayed told The Rumpus, “sometimes you have to include other people [in your book], but mostly it needs to be about you.”
The Old Saw
It’s often said but hard to see, that the way we treat others is more a reflection of how we see ourselves. Reading it is another story.
The acrimony memoir never does well, as may be evidenced by the fact that I can’t think of any published ones, though I’ve read plenty in writing groups. This is one of my favorite things about writing groups and classes. Often I can see flaws in other people’s work that are exactly what I need to work on in my own. There’s something about the process of taking apart another person’s work that makes glitches obvious. And this, I believe, is the crux of memoir.
We read memoir to learn about ourselves. Like seeing my errors in other people’s writing, the same is true with stories. The perspective offers the right amount of distance, even if our stories are dissimilar.
A Final Note
I read for pleasure. Okay, as a writer I’m also looking for ideas. But for the most part, I want to get lost in the experience. And this is where so much memoir can go wrong. The dreaded, and so I learned…
If I wanted to read a self-help book, I would! I really just want your story, you’re going to have to trust me to figure it out. Caveat, I say this as a person with a book subtitled, What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar, but before you think this sentiment hypocritical, read the book! It’s not pedantic almost to my dismay, because I wanted people to take away some new ideas about the good people of Qatar, and thus far no one has mentioned my brilliant insights…
Like A Good Memoirist, I Lied
Frankly, I couldn’t figure out how to jam this in, but I had to include it. Both because Alexandra Fuller is an exquisite writer, and because it gives me courage to go on, especially when I “confess” something I feel is plain and am applauded for my bravery. Of her first book she told PBS, “everyone called it brutally honest. And it really made me realize how much everybody else must just be lying through their teeth all the time.”
Underneath our daily lives is the fear that we’re doing something wrong or life would be easier. Good memoir proves how life is hard for all of us, but we’re still here. And we’re all in this together.