Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Are YOU Entitled to Write a Memoir?

Monday, February 21st, 2011

According to Neil Genzlinger, probably not.

Genzlinger, writing in the New York Times in late January, describes most memoirs as having been written by “a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional …” Kind of a sweeping generalization, huh? In his article “The Problem with Memoirs” (NYT January 28, 2011), Genzlinger sets out some new “standards” for those he calls “would-be memoirists.” A theater, television, film, and book critic, Genzlinger says you shouldn’t consider writing a memoir unless you have better credentials than more famous memoirists, more to say that is meaningful, and a willingness to become the least important character in your memoir. (Say what?) Otherwise you are simply adding to the worthless pile of books written by those who apparently don’t realize “how commonplace their little wrinkle is.” I don’t advocate for meaningless writing, but Genzlinger seems to miss the fact that those commonplace little wrinkles are what make up the tapestry of human life. Granted, I may gobble up a memoir he thinks is unexceptional; he may inhale one that I think is soon to be consigned to the bargain books heap. But when someone sets out to convey a life, nine times out of ten he or she will have an impact on someone, somewhere. For any given memoir — or memoir’s close cousin, personal history – that “someone” is apt first to be the author’s family, friends, colleagues, and even … critics! It doesn’t need to end up on the NYT Bestseller list, and not being there will not make it more “commonplace.” I think Genzlinger needs to step back and figure out WHY people write memoirs and personal histories. They’re not always meant to be turned into Broadway plays or TV serials. More likely, they’re borne of the desire to connect with others, see where the common ground is, and perhaps offload some experiences that become more manageable — and more cautionary — in the sharing. No crime there. I say lighten up, dear critic! Climb down from your theater-reviewer pedestal and bear in mind that you may one day write your own memoir — I’d wager that you’ll have a few important things to say about folks in your own family.

Stories are the tellers of us

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

As a book lover and avid reader, I keep finding bits of prose or narrative that strike at the heart of personal history, memoir, and story-telling.  I’m reading along at a good clip and suddenly, I screech to a halt because there on the page is the truth about storytelling, cementing my belief that everyone has a story that needs airing and sharing.  Listen, for example, to Minny, an unforgettable character in Kathryn Stockett’s novel, The Help: “Every time we meet, I complain, I moan. I get mad and throw a hot potato fit. But here’s the thing: I like telling my stories … When I leave, the concrete in my chest has loosened, melted down so I can breathe for a few days.” Or to Little Bee in Chris Cleave’s novel Little Bee: “I could not stop talking because now I had started my story, it wanted to be finished. We cannot choose where to start and stop.  Our stories are the tellers of us.”     The tellers of us. This is the heart and soul of personal history.  (December 16, 2010)

Data Rot

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

Kind of an ugly term, data rot. But an even uglier concept, since it refers to what might happen to the precious things we’re putting on audiotape, CD, and DVD  — things we happily thought would last through the next millennium.  It’s not a new worry — just keeps coming up as we think about the future.  The problems that arise seem to be two, in particular:  .the changing machinery we use to read our data (our articles, photos, diaries, songs, films, journals); and the way we store our data  (with possible repercussions from temperature, humidity, light, and mold).  Think for a second about the old 8-track tape player; when was the last time you had an 8-track cartridge in your hands? The going rule these days is to make sure you move your data about every eight to ten years, transferring it from an older to a newer medium — like from VHS to DVD, or from audiotape to digital storage.   But … is there another way to preserve our history without having to do all this?

There is.  Place your memories, thoughts, photos, letters, hopes and dreams into one of the oldest media on the planet: a book!  This may be  old-fashioned.  But think of the history of books.  There is a small historic membership library in Salem, MA, for example, that houses a book published in 1498. You can still hold it, turn its pages, and read it (if you read Latin).  That, dear reader, is longevity!  Not that all books today will last. But with moderate care, books are still the longest lasting, least worrisome, and most satisfying (to me) medium into which to deposit a life history.   It’s still the first choice of many historians.  It’s still mine.  (October 18, 2010)

Remembering the Voices

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010

I was reminded today of the reason why many of us engage in writing and recording personal histories.

Often it’s not just about the photos and stories and memories. It’s about the  sounds.  Recently a friend who lost a beloved parent not long ago wrote about this in a blog posting.  A native and lifelong resident of Massachusetts, he  decamped in June with his wife  for  work in Cambodia.  Perhaps it was a sense of the  enormous distance he had put between himself and his family, friends,  and familiar ground that did it, but he found himself craving the sound of his late mother’s voice (especially after phoning the U.S. and hearing it on an old voice mail greeting that the family has kept).  I was immediately mindful of my own yearning  for my mother’s voice, a craving still strong these 26 years after her death.  Hearing those voices — whether on tape or video — is powerful and goes straight to the heart of why few among us would say we don’t miss hearing them.   I often urge friends with living parents to grab a tape recorder and make sure not to wait for an “occasion” to turn it on and let it memorialize a loved one’s voice.  Today’s casual dinner table conversation can become tomorrow’s audio gift. (September 2, 2010)