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Last weekend, at two in the morning, my friend Rachel and I were headed to the subway after an evening out, when we met a man in a fedora holding an old-fashioned turntable on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Atlantic. It was a dusty old thing that was clearly a high-end model in its day, with a plexiglass cover, and a body of rich walnut wood. The man held it with both hands. He looked lost.
“What’s up with this guy?” we both wondered. And so we asked.
His story took about half an hour. Much of it was unnecessary to the question, but we were intrigued enough to grant him some liberties.
Here are some facts we learned:
The man had come from Boston, but he grew up in Brooklyn.
“Well, not really,” he said, after a pause, “but…. Let’s just say I grew up in Brooklyn.”
He realized he was a note off.
“Put it this way. I came here when I was six.” He didn’t elaborate further.
His grandparents were Sicilian.
He spent a decade in the army.
He was now in his 50s.
He worked for the VA.
He was visiting a friend; she was a bartender nearby. Or a DJ. Or did some sort of work in a bar, or a nightclub, or some music venue.
He was going to stay the night, and head back to Boston the next day.
He came in on the bus to Chinatown.
He found the turntable on a bench at a bus stop. It was a nice turntable, and he was looking for someone to give it to. Did we want the turntable maybe?
We didn’t want the turntable. In fact, by that time we no longer wanted anything at all, except to get home. We almost forgot why we’d stopped. The man had launched into an elaborate account of his life that might’ve been interesting enough for five minutes, but it was now half past two, and taking far too long.
“Let’s get out of here,” I mumbled to Rachel sideways, when it finally felt enough. The man wasn’t finished speaking — he wasn’t ever going to finish, it seemed, and there was just no other way.
What is special about another person’s story?
This I’ve wondered often as I’ve thought about the meaning of memoir. What is the form? Ontologically. The ding an sich, to get fancy. Not how is it done, but what is it and why.
It’s easy to find a working definition: a true-life personal story.
Working backward: It is a story, because all memoir is storytelling. It is personal; told (ordinarily) in the first person, with the protagonist as narrator. It is real-life: it took place in “real” space-time, at least through one person’s subjective recollection.
Storytelling we understand. It is the oldest, most powerful, most enduring vehicle for making meaning in our lives. It is no accident that civilization’s most sacred scriptures are so often in narrative form: the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita. Sure, Ecclesiastes waxes philosophical and Proverbs contains some useful aphorisms, but get a story like Abraham’s and you see how nations form histories. Get a story like Joseph’s and you see the depravity humans — brothers! — can sink to, as well as their capacity for redemption. Get a story like Job’s, and it strikes you as it did Job himself, leaving you resigned to life’s futility and randomness and the frustrating mystery of it — which you suspect is no mystery but utter nothingness disguised as a cosmic puzzle.
We enjoy novels, films, plays, because they tell us something that sounds “real,” or real enough. As David Shields writes in Reality Hunger, “The origin of the novel lies in its pretense of actuality.” The fiction narrative exists only because it attempts verisimilitude. Its power is precisely in the degree to which its artifice can be ignored.
But then fiction grew tiring somehow — perhaps the artifice grew too apparent. We shucked the novel from its literary pride of place, with its modernist and post-modernist distractions, and did ourselves one better. We went back to the campfire in the cave, said to the old men and the warriors and the adventurers and the explorers: tell us what really happened.
The “real” real.
We discovered memoir, with its skin-tingling intimacy, and at first blush, it seems that we’ve done nothing more than turned back to the most elemental of human interactions. We went back to asking simple questions, inviting a story. How was your day? What’d you do over the weekend? How was your vacation in Maui?
Tell me, sir, why are you standing on a corner at 2 a.m. with an old turntable?
This is true: every story answers a question.
How did an Irish boy with an alcoholic father and a pious, weeping mother endure his miserable childhood (and remember it all with poignancy and humor)?
How did it come to be that a fashionable woman riding a New York City taxicab sees her own mother, a homeless woman, rooting through a Dumpster?
Why did a young woman who’d never so much as camped out for the night spend five months walking 2,650 miles of wilderness all on her own?
When we meet a stranger, we are only faintly interested in them, but we tentatively invite them to offer us something.
Where are you from? What do you do? Do you come here often?
We listen until the question is answered, if it’s brief enough. If what follows is captivating enough, we are drawn in and perhaps stay a while. If we’re worn down in impertinent details, we beg off quickly, we’re busy, we’ve got to go, nice chatting. Asking a question is not an invitation to go on for too long or to be uninteresting. We don’t care much for the barfly who never stops talking about himself. There’s a reason many of us fear the dreaded airplane seatmate who offers too much without being asked.
What is it, then, that we seek in memoir? Suspense? Don’t we have the novel for that?
“The memoir is having its moment,” we are told by one literary observer after another. Why memoir? Because it’s “real.” No artifice, only “truth.”
Except: truth, we discover, is often banal. Truth is trite. Truth keeps you at two in the morning listening to a man’s collection of life facts that have you shifting from one foot to another trying to find a polite way to say goodbye. Do you have an hour to hear about every mundane thing that happened today at the office? I swear, it’ll be real and true. No, of course you don’t.
It seems what we’re asking, then, is for sleight of hand: tell us the truth, but please, apply the artifice of fiction — just hide it well. Yes, how was your day, but keep it short, I’ve only got a minute. Yes, we want real, but we need it to be gripping too. Make me read it in one sitting, max two. Otherwise, I’ve got Netflix. Ain’t nobody got time for just anyone’s everyday moaning. Merely “real and true” just won’t suffice.
This, then is the challenge to the memoirist. We want the believably real with the quality of the unreal. Can you do that for us? Is that so much to ask?
Why does the memoirist write?
Some for fame and fortune (foolishly, it usually turns out). Some for unburdening and healing. Some for justice or vengeance or both, depending on how you see it, either way turning the confessional into the accusational.
For some, our stories are a cri de coeur to the world, saying: I matter. We are seduced by the notion of being at the center of a drama. If Madame Bovary had to be invented, thinks the neglected housewife, then isn’t my real-life story just as good? If all the world was gripped with Captain Ahab, shouldn’t my trip on a whale-watching boat from Provincetown make a story just as compelling, because it’s “true”? I can describe the smell of a whale fart, because I actually smelled it. Could Captain Ahab do that if he never even existed?
And that, of course, is where we are prone to get stuck when considering this form. Memoir, we think, is about the truthfulness of facts, rather than something far more truthful than that.
Some, therefore, write for none of the above. Instead, they’ve been blurting their stories from the day they could speak, until the world, recognizing they would not be silenced, called them writers, storytellers, artists. These blurters use whatever form available, whatever form might be consumed, because it isn’t the form that determines truth.
Is poetry true? Is painting true? Is music true? We don’t ask these questions. The answer would be “N/A.” Is the ocean funny? Does the DMV cry? Do scrambled eggs get anxious? These questions do not apply.
The blurters, therefore, don’t tell stories just because they really happened. The blurters would happily tell lies if they offered truth. Philip Roth, with his 27 novels, lied and lied and lied, and told more truth than all the true-life stories written in 50 years combined.
No, it’s not factual truth alone that makes memoir true — though it is required, and we expect it. Nor does the power of memoir come from that special intimacy with the writer. A novel, too, offers intimacy with its characters. So does a crowded subway, for that matter.
The uniqueness of memoir is that it demands truth ripped not from the imagination but as if from the flesh. It contains truth, because the writer has gutted her insides, scraped bare every last shameful crevice, held up its foul-smelling contents and, holding her nose, said: behold, this is me. Can you handle it?
This, then, is also why we read. This is the difference between a banal collection of life facts, and a memoir worthy of being considered one. We want for someone to hold up their own blemished humanity, so that we can see ours, and see that we are not alone.
What memoir readers seek is not the suspense of the novel, nor the intimacy of a crowded space, but a revelation so true that few dare voice it. What we want is a truth we’ve known but have yet to hear articulated.
I am often asked: can anyone write memoir?
The answer is not only yes, but that memoir, in its essence, is simply the performance of self-revelation for the sake of making others feel less alone. This we can can perform every day, each one of us. All we need is to be invited — to be asked a question. And to offer in response not just banal facts, but a degree of vulnerability that need not be confined to a manuscript and a publishing deal.
No art form exists that is not innate within all of us. Give a child crayons and paper and she will draw. Give a boy a Lego set and he will build. Ask a child how her day was and she’ll tell you a story without the protective film our adult egos stretch over us, pulled taut more and more each day.
Memoir, therefore, is an act of intentional vulnerability in storytelling, whether on the page or in the everyday. Many art forms require courage, but rarely as much as in memoir. To do the work of memoir, we don’t need to be memoirists, or writers, or artists. We simply need the will to speak the truth that would more easily remain unspoken. The truth our egos demand that we hide. A true memoir is that which tells us, there’s more truth in shame than in pride.
Memoir writers are not doing what others can’t; they’re doing what others won’t.
How was your day? I did something I’m embarrassed to speak of. Want to hear more? Of course you do.
This is memoir.
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