Last week The New York Times ran Neil Genzlinger’s scathing piece about the “absurdly bloated” memoir genre. I read the article agreeing wholeheartedly with each shrewd literary point and snarky quip. Yes to:
There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet.
I felt like I was back in Elizabeth Hodges’ nonfiction workshop when I read, “If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.”
Amen to, “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”
Part of me really appreciates this article—I want the masses to read it and abide by the laws of Neil Genzlinger. But another part of me has this excerpt[i] from Shauna Niequists’ most recent book rattling around in the more inspired part of my brain. The part that wants to encourage others to not only tell their stories, but tell them artfully enough to honor the One writing the big story.
Is it okay if I agree with Genzlinger and Niequist? Good, because I do. Like Genzlinger says, the memoir genre is bloated. We can heave some blame on the publishing industry, and subsequently the people who write and purchase these books. After all, just because a book becomes a bestseller, doesn’t mean it is a work of literary genius. We can blame the age in which we’re living, and all the narcissistic and voyeuristic tendencies that come with it. But it’s never enough just to lay blame.
From a Christian standpoint, it’s absurd to say one life’s story has more value than another. From a rhetorical standpoint (in the classical sense of rhetoric[ii], not the current news/journalism sense), one life’s story absolutely has more value than another—purely because of the way it is told.
As Joan Didion said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Yet, she never said they should all be memoirs. We need to tell our stories, but perhaps they’re better suited for an essay or private journal rather than a full-length memoir. Last week I received a review copy of Someone’s Son by Brenda Rhodes[iii]. The mother and business owner turned author shares the story of her son’s drug addiction, gay lifestyle, and painful death from illness related to AIDS.
Writing through grief can bring healing. The semester after my dad died, I wrote an essay about aspects of that grief. I cried and sorted things out as I wrote. I’m indebted to my workshop group for bearing with me and asking gentle questions to help shape the piece, yet I wouldn’t try to publish it. Writing through grief is cheaper than a psychiatrist, but doesn’t make for good reading (unless you write like Joan Didion).
In Someone’s Son Brenda Rhodes relives decades of events leading to her moments of grief. She points to mistakes she made without quite confessing, and provides a great deal of detail. She reflects on her walk away from faith and her return to God in the midst of turmoil. Someone’s Son may comfort parents living similar stories: those grieving the loss of a child or the mistakes they’ve made. These messy stories aren’t for everyone though.
While Rhodes said God’s love allowed her to rejoice through her lowest moments, I finished Someone’s Son feeling bogged down by the tragedy and by the absence of true, deep reflection. Difficult stories are worth telling, but the most difficult part is sometimes admitting our faults and revealing our humanness. That is how we create space in our stories for God.
I suspect Genzlinger would categorize Someone’s Son as a memoir that should have remained private. Niequist would probably be much kinder. I stand somewhere in the middle. I think there’s a great deal of value in all of our stories. Yet if we’re really trying to honor God with them, we need to take time, dig deep into reflection and not be afraid to reflect ourselves in a less than positive light.
The trickiest aspects of writing creative nonfiction are: 1) Your characters write their own action. 2) You can’t swoop in like a fiction author, orchestrating the tidy conclusion. Much, thoughtful, honest reflection is required for catharsis. 3) Even if you are brave enough to tell the whole truth about your ugly humanity, others may not appreciate your version of their story.
Every once in a while, I’ll dust off the essay about my dad. Maybe I’ll have more truth to offer it, but I doubt it will ever be resolute.