Archive for February, 2011

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.

Telling Stories, Hearing Stories

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

There’s a great line in Kathryn Stockett’s book, The Help, that jumped out at me the first time I read it and probably does the same for other people who pursue personal history.  It’s from the character Minnie, a brashly reluctant but ultimately willing informant for Miss Skeeter. (I advise a reading, if you haven’t yet.)  Minnie says: “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. It feels like I’m doing something about it. When I leave [the storytelling sessions], the concrete in my chest is loosened, melted down so I can breathe for a few days.”

A perfect capsule of words that tell why we do what we do in personal history. People WANT to tell their stories, want to loosen the concrete in their chests, even if they tell you their lives are too unimportant to share. The act of storytelling is a relief, an unburdening.  And the act of listening, receiving, and committing those stories to the page (or the tape or the film) means that our willing ears are our best tools.   The gathering and producing of these stories translates into honoring the storytellers.   It doesn’t get much better or simpler than that.