My friend Sarah, one of my followers, sent me a link to a New Yorker article arguing the pros and cons of contemporary memoirs. (I'll post it, but not immediately. Must let it simmer a little longer.) This got me thinking about why I read and write personal essays and all forms of life writing. The article talks about what the author considers the worst of the genre - woe-is-me writing and fictionalized memoirs - and considers the historical evolution of the genre. I don't have strong opinions about fictionalized accounts that weave their way into memoirs. No one's memory is 20/20 and most memoirists include a disclaimer somewhere in their texts about changing names and doing their best to recall what actually happened, James Fry be damned. As for woe-is-me writing, I, personally, don't read life writing to wallow in someone else's misery (although the saying does go "misery loves company"). Along the same lines, however, I do read and write about real life for, well, company.
My husband, the psychologist, has talked to me before about the value of "narrative therapy" - telling stories to resolve trauma and crises - and I do see the value in that; however, I am not typically drawn to authors who complain about the wreck of their lives. Rather, I'm interested in the survivors; the ones who laugh through the apocalypse, or even just the mild inconveniences. They are the everyman heroes who help me laugh at my own neurotic tendencies. They are my group therapy and man do we have some good times. That is why I love Gilbert and Karr and Winnik, Woody Allen and David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff. Granted, Karr's spiral into alcoholism, despair, and suicidal tendencies do not produce a million yucks, but she has enough distance from her past to reflect with dark (dark, dark) humor. Reminds me of Wordworth's "emotion recollected in tranquility."
So, my own forays into life writing are similarly motivated: I long for community. As the last child born in a family of four kids - I being the afterthought by eleven years - and the daughter of a repressively depressed mother, I know a thing or two about loneliness. Add to that my natural egg-headed, sensitive, geeky tendencies and you get a good picture of my childhood. But oh I can work a jigsaw puzzle! When I write about my life I am shouting into the chasm hoping to find a response other than my own echo (hint: comments, I love comments people!). I am the annoying person who runs between email on my iPhone, Facebook on my laptop, and voicemail on the land line (my poor kids will be in therapy talking about me one day). I live for community. The idea of community was a central ingredient of my wedding ceremony. Maybe that's why I'm so engrossed in "Lost" ("live together; die alone"). I may be co-dependent on my circle of family and friends, but I live for feedback. I also see the value in Winnik's exhibitionist tendencies. Confessions lead to absolution. They also can bond people together. Why do you think AA has such loyal followers? When I published my essay on miscarriage, my first goal was therapeutic. Writing helped me cope (narrative therapy). My second goal was to bring voice to the silenced. So many women stepped forward to tell me their own miscarriage stories, that I realized I was far from alone. These stories were whispered to me by friends who, in many cases, had never discussed their experiences. I wanted to break the taboo and show the value in publicly acknowledging that miscarriage happens pretty frequently, so more women don't suffer in silence, alone.
In my angsty 20s I read Lynda Barry's cartoon "Ernie Pook's Comique," an autobiographically warped look at Barry's awkward child/teenhood. One comic was titled "Riding on a Bummer," which I cut out and put in my journal. Barry became my best friend. I cut out the title of another comic, "What It Is," and glued it above my college graduation photo in my graduation photo album. "What It Is" is also the name of Barry's memoir/guide to writing/clusterfuck scrapbook.