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From Confession to Craft: Memoir as Its Own Reward

by Dinah Lenney

pdBack when I was a third grade geek, wanting badly to be accepted and popular (loved!), I walked home from school one day with Howard U. and Doug Y., past my own house at the bottom of Fellsmere Road and up the hill to Howard’s. We went down to the basement – one of those windowless wood-paneled affairs with a ping pong table and a wet bar – and I did as I had promised. (They said they’d say I did it if I didn’t.) I lifted my polka dot sundress high above my belly and let them see my underpants. Carter’s white, high-waisted, full coverage. Then, said Doug, unimpressed – and who could blame him? – “If you don’t pull them down and show us everything, we’re really gonna tell.” So I did that, too.

Afterwards, all by myself, I walked home, where I couldn’t eat, couldn’t do my homework, couldn’t think of anything else: the agony of that secret – the shame – and the consequential urge to come clean; to spill the beans and so be purged. Not that I’d have made an announcement to the third grade at John Ward Elementary, but knowing nothing of Catholicism, I intuited that my way to redemption was to take control; to tell my story in my own time and my own way.

Other confessions followed, of course: a bottle of Manischewitz stolen from the liquor cabinet; a teen-aged crush on a man twice my age. But this is the first I remember, my initial foray into the genre, told to my mother at bedtime, one arm hugging her knee – her presence strong and comforting in the curve of her hip against my belly – the end of her cigarette doing loop-de-loops in the dark. Wanting to keep her there, I told the tale slowly, in full and humiliating detail. Afterwards, she assured me I was a good girl, and that she loved me. And I was able to sleep…

Fast forward a decade, during which I mostly behaved myself. I was a good girl! But having survived buck-up and buckle-down parenting in a family where therapy certainly wasn’t an option, if it wasn’t exactly a dirty word, I chose a dubious profession – acting – although more likely because I could belt a high C than due to any childhood repression. And so my vocation turned out to be one in which it was a requisite, however unseemly, to expose myself.

Eventually I learned that in acting, as is also true with writing, less is usually more. But this is just one of many obvious parallels in craft: All this brouhaha about adding and padding in the memoir, when, in fact, there’s no need to fudge the facts; the way a story is told – performed, that is! – counts for at least as much as the story itself. And that’s where the genre departs from confession, doesn’t it? Because in the former, at least, a person can and should decide she’d rather show than tell on occasion; and in deference to decency and good will, she might even choose to keep a few savories to herself for all time, choice though they may be.

It’s easier then, to write fiction than nonfiction in good taste, largely because with fiction taste isn’t a consideration. Like poets, musicians, and painters, novelists work with metaphor – getting at the truth, however difficult, from the side. But the art of memoir is to nail it; the memoirist toes the line between honesty and good manners, hopefully with a mind to propriety and some consideration for other people’s feelings. So how to be artful while juggling the obligation not just to tell what happened, but to tell it with some decorum? How to avoid being condemned for self-love, self-pity, self-indulgence? To dodge all that requires self-awareness and the desire to engage if not exactly entertain.  We don’t want to be boring, after all, and nothing is so boring as the self-proclaimed victim or hero: No whining, boasting, blaming or wallowing; no pounding the reader over the head – no matter how righteous we feel.

With all that in mind, there aren’t a whole lot of subjects I won’t tackle. My marriage is one, because I’d like to stay married. I have to be very careful when I write about my children, since I want them to continue to speak to me. As for the rest of my readers? Given my assurance – my promise! – that I’m telling the whole truth as I understand it, I’d rather they judged my work than my story.

My memoir, Bigger than Life, is about my relationship with my father; the catalyst to the writing his abduction and murder in September 1997. Though the crime is certainly the fulcrum, it turns out not to be the main event of the book, which, like so many in the genre, is mostly and unabashedly about me. I’m consequently surprised and a little uncomfortable when readers feel obliged to offer condolences more than a decade after my father’s death. “But did you like the book?” I want to ask. “Did you like the writing?”

Meanwhile, a couple of years since it was published, one question still gnaws: Was it distasteful to use the events of my father’s story as an excuse to tell my own? In my defense, I’ll insist that the answer depends on the prose. Again, what we tell or don’t – as long as we stick to the truth – is beside the point; the writing of memoir, as with all literary endeavor, has everything to do with craft, and in that regard, as noted, the task of the memoirist is especially tricky. If a fiction writer identifies dysfunction in her protagonist, we applaud her insight and assume she’s above that pathology herself. If she rips a story from the headlines, she’s resourceful, imaginative. But if a memoirist does the same, it’s opportunism at best. At worst? Betrayal. And if she reveals the protagonist as flawed – vain or selfish or jealous or weak – she’s guilty as charged. Memoir, it appears, turns confession on its head; the writer is more likely to get a pie in the face than absolution.

Did I hurt people by writing the book? And did they throw pies? Yes, of course. There are whole factions of my family who believe the appropriate way to deal with our collective truth is to keep it to ourselves. I might have anticipated my mother’s silent wrath and my daughter’s noisier, though less bitter, objections. On the other hand, I never could have predicted my uncle’s corroboration and support. In any case, I’d have written as I did. I wasn’t writing the book for them.

Who for, then? Did I mean for strangers to read? And are strangers to conclude my work is “art”? And if so, how dare I make art out of personal tragedy?  Do I in some way diminish my father’s life in an effort to understand my own? The ultimate objection would have had to come from the man himself. But he can’t object, nor can he pat me on the head. No ultimate blessing to be had; only the realization that if I’m looking for approval, I’ll have to find it another way.

As a writer of nonfiction, mine continues to be the confessional mode a whole lot of the time. But I’ve learned, in snatches and moments, to balance my need for approval and redemption – my need, that is, to be right – with my obligation to get it right, whatever it is. About a year ago, my daughter, Eliza, and I went to a screening of Atonement, with Vanessa Redgrave on board for a Q&A after the film. Eliza had a question; too shy to ask it herself, she slipped it to me, scrawled on the back of a deposit slip from my checkbook. She noted that at the end of the movie (and the book, too), Briony, a middle-aged novelist, having confessed and in her effort to atone, gives Cecelia and Robbie the fictional happy ending they didn’t have in real life. Eliza wanted to know if Redgrave “played Briony as someone who is redeemed by the writing – or as a coward for not telling the truth.”

Ms. Redgrave couldn’t give her a straight answer – her job as an actor precluded her doing so, I think – but in truth, confession and atonement are inventions of the human imagination. Regardless of what religion tells us, there comes a point when a person has to accept that redemption may not be in the offing. All grown up and devoted to the genre as we are, however heartfelt the confession, however strongly we atone, the only real solace we have is in the work itself.

Dinah Lenney is the author of Bigger than Life: A Murder, a Memoir, published by the University of Nebraska in Tobias Wolff’s American Lives Series. She co-authored Acting for Young Actors (Watson-Guptill) and has contributed to various publications and anthologies, including The New York TimesAgni, Water~Stone, and the Los Angeles Times. Lenney serves as core faculty in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC, as well as in the Rainier Writing Workshop and the Bennington Writing Seminars. A working actor, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.