Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Memoir Reading and Writing...

I started reading memoirs back when I decided to try writing one. I love memoirs. Good ones seem as though they were easy to write. They seldom reveal how difficult it was to put those words down on paper. My own efforts at writing a memoir have taught me that they are very difficult to write.

The memoirs I enjoy tell stories of lives lived. The good ones offer a balance of story and lessons learned. I do not enjoy memoirs where the author is so full of himself that he just can’t bear to let us go through life without knowing just how great he is. James Frey and Augustan Burroughs are two such memoirists. Their memoirs don’t display people who are learning anything in life. Rather, they present themselves as the ones from whom we could all stand to learn a few things. They’ve landed on this planet with all the answers. Now, if only the rest of us would recognize that. After all, they’ve generously supplied us with their brand of truth.

I read in an article on Critical Mass that Lillian Hellman’s memoir, Pentimento, possesses a questionable story line. However, the writer of the article said that she is worthy of forgiveness because the memoir is written with such beautiful prose. Pentimento is next on my reading list.

Some of the memoirs I enjoyed are:

  • Color of Water
  • The Glass Castle
  • The Woman Warrior
  • Lucky
  • The Unreliable Truth
  • Jill Kerr Conway's memoirs
  • Mary Carr’s memoirs

My favorites, though, are:

  • Autobiography of a Face and Truth and Beauty, which must be read together in that order.
  • Out of Africa, because I adore Isak Dinesen.
  • Living to Tell the Tale by Garcia Marquez. Either his memoir is a total fabrication or all of his fantastic fiction is based on his real life. I can read any paragraph in that book and see a wholly developed story within it. He's the man!
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran is a memoir for people who love books. I read it and Lolita and The Ambassador and The Great Gatsby as part of the journey, and it was a wonderful experience.

I feel gratitude for these memoirists for the way they've shared themselves with me, whether the events of the story are fact or not.

I've tried writing a memoir, and it ain't easy. I kept returning to the question of, "What's my point?" Okay, so I’m an adoptee from the 1950s, when adoption records were sealed. I don’t know much about my origins, and never will. So, the theme could be what? Living with the unknown? It’s so not Hollywood. Then again, there is that Hollywood element, because of the circumstances. I was a foundling, discovered when a woman opened her car door one October morning. The car was just a few blocks away from the entrance to Paramount Studios. In fact, you can see the gates of the studio from the apartment building. In the other direction, the Hollywood sign looms above like a voyeur.

The Hollywood sign gave me the idea for writing the memoir as a sort of hybrid. Yes, there’s the story a girl’s life from childhood in southern California through her teen pregnancy and marriage at age fifteen. But what’s the point, Nancy? And beyond? But sprinkled throughout are the fictional stories the girl creates to give herself a sense of origin. These stories are all called Fade to Black, and each one is a flash of how she might have come to be in Mary Couch’s car back on that frosty morning in October of 1957. But what’s the point? And what’s so interesting about what or who I’ve become?

We all think our stories are interesting. When I was working my freelance writing business full time and marketing the heck out of myself, I can’t tell you how many people approached me with the pitch, “I have an incredible story, and I want you to write it for me. We’ll share the royalties.” So many people out there want to tell their story. But what I came up against writing mine is that it is hard to tell a truthful story.

None of us want to cast ourselves in an unfavorable light. We all want to tell the story of being a victim or of prevailing over adversity, where we are in the right and evil oppressors hold decks stacked in their favor. Does anyone want to read a story about a girl who grew up to believe that no one belongs to anyone, that family as we see it is an illusion. That we all must find our own families and sense of place in a world that tells us to be loyal to blood no matter what? Does anyone want to read a story of a girl who has babies very young and then leaves them to pursue her education? Can I ever find the heart and the courage to tell the real story? I left my husband in 1984 to find my own way, and I left my daughters with him. When I left, I watched my husband and mother close and lock the door behind me, effectively keeping me out of their lives. If my daughters were to read this, they would scream that it is a fiction. They believe that I abandoned them. They will always believe that I didn’t want them in my life. Believing that holds up the structure of the myth and drama they’ve created around their own lives.

But my story is my story. I can hear Ginger saying, “It’s always all about you, Mom.” Well, yes. My story is all about me. The good, the bad, but my truth. The things that allow me to get up in the morning and face another day, and the things that haunt me at night. The things that make me dance and the things that make me pull the covers over my head. Life takes a lot of courage, even for the most ordinary of us. No one’s going to knock on my door and say, “I’m your mother. I’ve finally found you.” The UPS truck isn’t going to pull up with a notice that I’ve been written into the will of some famous producer from the 1950s who knocked up the wardrobe girl so long ago. But the fantasies continue. I’m a fiction writer, so the fantasies will continue. That’s the easy part. The truth part is what’s hard. Maybe I’m making it more complicated than it is. Truths are often simple.

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