Sunday, December 27, 2015

Why We Write About Ourselves

Title:  Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Author:  Meredith Maran, Editor
Publication Information:  Plume. 2016. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0142181978 / 978-0142181973

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Gloria's right."

Favorite Quote:  "Truth in memoir is a lie ... The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can't fact check memory."  [Dani Shapiro]

The dictionary defines memoir in two ways: a historical account written from personal knowledge or  or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people. The first definition sets up the exception of a true history. The second sets up the expectation of one individual's recollection. The distinction seems small, but it truly is not.

Years ago, I remember reading A Million Little Pieces by James Frey for my book club. We picked up and approached the book as a memoir. Before our meeting, however, came the news that many aspects of the book were not indeed true. James Frey was accused of literary forgery. The book was pulled and re-marketed as a novel. That, of course, became the bulk of our discussion. What emerged were several conclusions. One, as readers, we take memoirs as "true" - one person's truth but true nevertheless. Two, reading something as true only to find it is not creates a sense of having being betrayed. Three, reading a book as a story - true or not - liberates a reader to enjoy it the story for what it is - characters, plot, writing style, and all things associated with literature.

So, as a readers, is my enjoyment of a memoir based on the idea that the story is true? Is it based on the way the story is written and told as with any book? Is it the book that creates the experience or is it my expectation? My experience is that it is both.

This book - Why We Write About Ourselves - brings the author's perspective on memoirs. It is a collection of essays by twenty authors who have written one or more memoirs. The list includes some authors, whose work I have read - Edwidge DanticatSue Monk Kidd, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, and Jesmyn Ward.

Each author's section is structured the same way - an introduction to the author including birthday, home, schooling, and social media links; a listing of the author's works; the essay which is the author's answer to why they write about themselves; and finally, some short words of wisdom for memoir writers.

I am clearly not the audience for this book. The book is written for the writers of memoirs or those considering writing a memoir. I am neither. However, I enjoy the "behind the scenes" look at how these works come to be. Reading memoirs, I have often wondered what leads someone to write something so intensely personal about not only themselves but those around them. I have often wondered what impact a public memoir has on an author's personal life and relationships. I have often wondered how true memoirs really are. Memories depend on the author; what is included and excluded depends on the author; but is what is there true within those limitations? These essays, to varying degrees, answer these questions.

The positive and the negative of the book is that the points made by the different authors are similar. This is the best part of the book because patterns emerge for the how and the why of memoir writing. This same aspect, however, makes the book somewhat repetitive, with the same ideas coming from different voices. Perhaps, choose to read the essay by the authors whose memoir you have read. Familiarity with the memoir being discussed adds another dimension to read the essay about how and why it's written. Perhaps, choose to read an essay occasionally rather than the book from start to end.

My "takeaway" from this book ... In fiction, I often remind myself to suspend disbelief and go along to where the story takes you. Perhaps, memoirs are no different. Simply read it and go where the author takes you.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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