no worse evil than the fall of a cornice

image by justmakeit via flickr

I continue to think a great deal about memoir as a genre, not because I’d ever embrace it for my own writing, but because I’m at the tail end of a bit of a junket in which I’ve made a several course meal of them and I’m about to burst. There continues to be so much discussion of truth and fact and their relevance within this odd form of autobiography. Perhaps what I enjoy most about reading memoirs is that I can cover my rational eye and just experience the events portrayed.

Jennifer Lauck wrote a piece about the distinction between memoir and autobiography in which she quoted Malcolm Gladwell:

“Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

Persuasion, as honestly as possible… no easy task when you involve real people, real entities (such as Apple, via Mike Daisey). Some clearly do it well and responsibly, beautifully. Others are reckless, even exploitative. I read another piece, I think in last month’s Vogue, involving a woman scorned whose unnamed partner was described with enough detail so that anyone could figure out who he was with a two-second google search, like figuring out who Adrien Brody was in Calloway’s fiction. That type of memoir makes me cringe, irregardless of how well written it may be.

Anyway, Lauck goes on to describe the differences, in her words, as follows:

From my view, memoir is, most simply stated, memory. It is a given that memory isn’t factual or accurate, nor should anyone claim it to be. We all know the debate of the six people who witnessed the same car accident and had differing versions. Memory is personal to the perceiver and to explore memory — in the form of memoir writing — is to explore a personal truth of perception.

Life in a memoir is not like life in a novel. Life in memoir is real life (or as real as the writer can attempt to tell). Like life, memoir cannot be expected to hold itself together with the same literary connective tissue as that applied in a novel. Life, at its most true expression, is a series of fragments, moments, memories, dreams, perceptions, lies and stabs at truth. More, life is a gathering of experience, from which we glean our deepest wisdoms about how to be alive. Memoir writing about life is the active process of separating the slag from the gold, which the reader gets to witness — if they are paying attention.

This weekend I picked up a book that had been staring at me for some time, Stephen Elliott’s The Adderall Diaries. I bought it several months ago when I first fell head over heels in literary love with his writing and, honestly didn’t expect to like it as much as I have. I couldn’t put it down.

He truly is an incredible writer, capable not only of crafting intensely beautiful phrases, moments, but also of telling a damned good story. His apparent rambling always has a purpose, a destination, and as a reader you trust him enough to follow him on this circuitous route, often dipping into alleys you’d never visit alone. Elliott has a way of engaging his reader by wrapping himself around you until the only way you can remain standing is to grasp his arm tightly and tag along.

I just finished a week or so of single parenthood, my husband traveling. He is such a presence that we all miss him tremendously, but it is a good thing to shake up our perspective, our routine, not only because absence makes the heart indeed grow fonder but also because it allows for different conversations, different moments. It also means we can eat all the things he doesn’t like and the cats can sleep in the bed. Yay!

Indeed, he lost his spot and was replaced by—besides the cats and one daughter—not one but three men from my past: James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens. I’m reading a book about them which I will write more later, but suffice it to say I am doing some memory mining of my own.

Tonight, however, I decided to wander through the online collection at Google (some wild stuff in there, if you are ever bored), and came across this, which I love because it shows me that this longing for a simpler more authentic life, time and space for reflection, is as relevant today as it was in 1868.

“We in America are almost all educated up to a certain point; few of us, unfortunately, are educated beyond it. The national character is pushing, energetic, ambitious; setting great value upon money and material luxuries, but without appreciation of the refined enjoyments that consist with a moderate purse, or the delicacy of feeling that marks a sensitive but well-balanced mind. The vortex of politics or of business draws into it all our energies; we have nothing to spare for reflection, for the observances of friendship, for the amenities of social intercourse.”

From the introduction to “The Letters of Madame de Sévigné to her Daughter and Friends,” 1868.

The letters themselves were amusing—ok, they were actually a bit dull in a French aristocrat sort of way. I admit that my fingers were flying over the trackpad skimming through them until finally I grew weary (oh my, I’m starting to talk like Glen Close in a powdered wig, plotting des liaisons dangereuses), and abandoned them pretty early on, but not before copying here a passage that made me laugh.

Watch out for those cornices, darling…


4 thoughts on “no worse evil than the fall of a cornice

  1. The quote from Jennifer Lauck’s piece of course made me follow the link. . . . She makes some really good points, as do you. Can’t help but think of ‘Pentimento,’ by Lillian Hellman, which really had a profound effect on me when I first read it. And I happened to have seen the Mike Daisy show before the ‘truth’ came out, the question now being — how much of it matters? Glad you’re enjoying those cats. 😉

    1. I need to go back and read Pentimento…thanks for the tip. The only good thing about having a really terrible memory is that I can read good books and watch good movies years later as if it were the first time! 🙂

  2. Most interesting regarding memoir. One of the only classes I’ve ever taken on writing was CNF. It was pretty much pounded into me that no fabrication, even in memoir.

    Elliott’s book is on my list. Do you get his daily emails? (grr…that reminds me, he just sent one out after many days of silence…I need to go read…i’ve missed his voice!) I agree, his writing wraps you tight; love it.

    wonderful post ~

    1. Maybe because my memory is so flawed I realized long ago that my recollection of events is often very different from that of others who shared an experience. I suppose I read all memoir with that in mind, maybe drawing the line about willful fabrication. It’s tricky though, the distinction, isn’t it?

      As for Mr. Elliott, yes, it’s kind of embarrassing what a fan I am of his writing. I suppose when anything moves me like his writing does I go a bit overboard with something akin to evangelical zeal. 🙂

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