By way of waking up today I dreamt in memoir. Literally. I lay in bed sleeping but kinda stirring and wrote the beginning pages of what will never actualize, but seemed pretty clearly, my memoir. My first line was: I always knew I knew nothing.
I’ve been thinking about memoir recently because I’ve been stuck (fortunate enough to be) reading some treatises on loneliness. Let me just say now, if I thought writing a memoir could easily teeter over into an exercise in self-indulgence before, reading about people’s understanding of their own loneliness and watching them set that understanding to a narrative, or worse a plot, can be like rubbing your cheeks up and down a cheese grater. But there are some fantastic memoirs, even if I’m not sure what that means. Is a memoir amazing if it speaks to me? If it speaks for me so I don’t have to? If it doesn’t speak for me but enables me to feel as though I am getting to know others through it? If it makes me (fill in the affect: angry, sad, jealous, anxious, calm, lonely…)____________________, does that mean I am a good reader or that the author is a good author?
Before I look at these ideas I’m turning to my horoscope because it seems oddly important here:
Horoscope for Sagittarius for September 21, 2011
No one can provide you with a sense of confidence in yourself — you have to feel it. So today, don’t wait for applause or accolades. Other people are not as focused on you as you think they are right now, and you don’t need their approval anyway. Move forward with false confidence if you must — but just go forward. It’s the focused action you take that will truly impress other people and get you noticed. Plus, it’s this type of behavior that will build the real confidence you seek.
After reading this I felt as though my horoscope, and the balding guy at his desk who probably wrote it for 50$ a line, was yelling at me to stop being so fucking self-absorbed. Imagine waking up in memoir. Christ, I might as well just put mirrors on my ceiling and craft a reality show. But if you take each line in my horoscope and end it in “except your memoir” the act of writing about the self takes on a whole new form. For example: “No one can provide you with a sense of confidence in yourself…except your memoir;” “Other people are not as focused on you as you think they are right now…except your memoir.” The memoir, then, becomes a tangible body one connects with. A friend, or a nemesis, that carries you through the day when the rest of the world seems too busy sorting their own messy selves out. And, after all, isn’t a PhD thesis in English and Cultural Studies a memoir of some degree? I’m writing about loneliness for fuck sakes, and I’m a self-confessed lonely gay!
And apparently gays love writing memoirs. There are shit-tons. But I’m not convinced this is because as queers our lives are extraordinary. I think it’s just that we haven’t been heard rambling on as much about our every day, and I don’t mean boring, lives as the heteros. Because to me that’s what memoir accomplishes: telling the stories of everyday people in a hodge-podge of situations that leave them wondering if they are touched in some way by specialness, even if they aren’t. But don’t tell us gays that, kay?
Writing about Memoir as a genre, Leigh Gilmore says in her The Limits of Autobiography:
“Confessional practices pervade and, arguably, define mass culture [. . .] American individualism is informed by a democratic ideology of e pluribus unum. Stand up, it says, and represent yourself. Or sit back and designate someone else to represent you (19).”
Part reprimand, part fact, and part why not?, Gilmore seems to be suggesting that if there is a problem with our obsession with self-story-telling, we can do little about it because we are all addicted to it. Instead, she wants to know how we tell these stories and what we hope to achieve in their telling.
For me what’s odd is that I have read a lot of memoir and I do have favorites, but the fact is whether or not I love a particular memoir has little or nothing to do with who wrote it. It matters for me how it is written. What it does to me. It matters little if I feel attached to the narrator or feel completely alienated by her, but what must be there in the plot somewhere, for me, is a sense of humor. I don’t care if the person is talking about having her leg knawed off by giant squirrels, about being held prisoner in a jam-jar the size of my ass, or about having Ebola and SARS at the same time, the best memoirs are the ones that can take the everyday person and the not-so-every-day experience and make it sound doable, livable, in a non-melodramatic and tragically funny way. I never remember the memoirist (although I’m sure she’s lovely, pretty, great in situ); I simply remember her words.
That’s how I connect to the story. And maybe for all of those people who accuse memoirists of narcissism (“why would I want to hear some person’s boring story about growing up with a lisp; why do they believe they are important enough to publish that?”) I think they might be missing the potential in memoir itself. You don’t need to fall in love with the author, or the idea that the author is painting you real. In fact, what are you looking for if that’s your need? I just wanna laugh out loud at the absurdity of the everyday. Mine and others’ which connects me to mine.
So here’s a memoir I love. It’s called Mean Little Deaf Queer: A Memoir. Terry Galloway wrote it and she’s a jackass. I’ll talk about it more and more in blogs to come because it’s part of this thesis machine, but by way of a sell, here it is: The protagonist is deaf and has mobility issues. She’s also not nice in any sense, and, in fact, is a big liar who is in love with her own arrogance to the point that you are yelling at the book and the narrator’s pompous statements until your throat burns. But she’s fucking hilarious. And the scenarios she gets herself into will make you both puke in your own mouth and pee your pants. Yes, you’ll need a face and bum diaper. The great thing about this book though is that you can picture these scenarios and nostalgically remember not being in them, but the building blocks that must be at play in some of the feelings Galloway confesses to here. Envy of the pretty girl. Lust for the pretty girl. Fear of getting caught lying. Lying anyway. The guilt after lying anyway. Adoration of the mother. Adoration of the father. Divorcing the mother, keeping the father. Anger towards the swim instructor. A crush on the swim instructor. And so it goes on and on.
A great line about memoir from this memoir is:
“the good [memoirs] thrill me every bit as much as the great novels but it’s the crappy ones I’ve lost my heart to. They make me feel like a rescue dog, sniffing out the dim glimmerings of feelings sincere and raw within a tangled wreckage of inchoate ramblings and obvious lies. [. . . ] I feel intensely fond of the whole lot of lousy writing that has found its way to print because I smell in those stinkers a fecund democracy. Every sort of half-coherent loser getting their say.”
Until my next pile of inchoate ramblings.