Issue #55, The Memoir Issue
The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir
Then & Now
The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir
Some words I just don't like. They make me angry. Maybe it’s the way these words feel in my mouth. Words like chipotle and creamy and isthmus, for example, have been known to make me violent. Show me a man who’s going around talking about isthmuses, and I’ll show you a man who’s got problems. And can you imagine creamy isthmuses? Sounds like something they’d make you eat in Scandinavia. No thanks, Vikings!
Words are powerful things. You must know that, right? You’re holding a whole magazine full of them. This magazine is basically an explosive device, when you think about it.
Ready to blow.
Speaking of blow, there’s one word here that really blows.
It’s French, for starters. A whole language invented to humiliate American patriots. The last time I said the word œuvre in public, people thought I was choking. I like a good solid consonant somewhere in my word, something I can build a house on. I need a T. If a T is not available, I’d like a P or a B or a G. A real G, not one of those Gs that sounds like you’re slowly drowning in a large bowl of soupe à l’oignon.
Memoir. How do you even say it?
Mem-war? Try it. You sound like a hillbilly.
Mem-wah? Now you sound like Ira Glass. Stop it.
Unfortunately, I spent much of my adult life trying to write the sort of thing described by this word I don’t like.
“What are you working on?” friends would ask.
“Stories,” I’d say.
“Short stories—cool!” they’d say.
“They’re short, yes, but—”
“Not short stories?”
“They’re stories, and they’re short, but they’re true.”
“Oh. Like essays?”
“Sort of. About my family.”
“So, it’s like a memoir?”
It wasn’t just the sound. It was the smell of the word. It smelled like self-importance. Like wretchedness and child abuse and alcoholism and sexual misdeeds. I started writing in the 1990s, the Decade of the Memoir, or rather the Decade of the Commonplace Autobiographies of Relatively Unimportant People and Celebrities Who Believed Their Stories Were Important. During the Clinton administration—maybe it was all the identity politics, the cancer of postcolonialism, who knows?—anybody who could get subjects and verbs to agree was trying to write a memoir that elevated his or her small lot of suffering into a Book of Job for the new millennium. Suddenly, people were writing books about overcoming ingrown toenails and having small nostrils. David Hasselhoff alone published, like, six memoirs from 1993–1997. These memoirs were more like long promotional brochures than books, but people bought them. Which was why they displayed them so prominently in bookstores, right out in front, near the books on how to become rich without the burden of intelligence or talent.
I wanted no part of this genre.
Another French word.
Get away from me, French words! Go shave your legs or something!
Occasionally, I might find someone talking about a “great” or “genius” or “gripping” memoir, but I wrote it off to mass hysteria and instead turned my attention to the sort of thing I was trying to write back then, which was plays.
Play. That’s a good word. It’s fun, festive, familiar. Plays are raw, funny, deep. David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Marsha Norman—geniuses.
“What are you writing?” friends would ask.
It was so easy!
Sometimes I found myself writing monologues, mostly for invented characters but sometimes with myself as the character, telling stories about people in my family. I’d been telling these stories for many years, mostly because these people, my family, were, to me, the most interesting people in the world, because they were insane.
A couple of years after 9/11, I stopped writing plays. I had many reasons for quitting, most of which had nothing to do with global jihad. Mostly, I was just bad at it.
The day after I quit writing plays, I went to a café with a notebook. I had decided I would write something new. I sat there, staring at the notebook, for about five years. This time, I blamed the secular humanists.
Then, five years later, in a moment of desperation, I went back to some of those funny monologues I’d written a long time before, and I erased all the stage directions and double-spaced everything, and the most amazing thing happened: the “dramatic monologues” shape-shifted into stories.
I went nuts. I started writing more and more of these stories, most of which were pretty bad, but not so bad that I wanted to cry.
“What are you working on?” friends asked during this happy new century.
“Stories,” I said.
“Short stories, cool!” they said.
And I had to explain that these were not really made-up stories.
“So, it’s like a memoir?”
“No, no, these are . . . essays.”
The word essay had a literary ring to it, a rich and aged patina and the scent of something serious, like a pair of old and well-polished boots—even if those boots were French, the word being so obviously Gallic in derivation, more vowel than consonant. But still, it was familiar and, more important, pronounceable. An essay could be a treatise, a philosophical declaration, a narrative postulation. Novelists, theologians, physicists, historians—they write essays. But to the average human being, even the kind who buys and reads books for fun and edification, reading essays probably sounds about as interesting as getting head lice—the only difference being, most people know where to get head lice. Good luck finding essays at your local bookstore. You’re better off searching in the bookstore for the corpse of David Hasselhoff, who’s probably not even dead yet, which would make his corpse pretty hard to find.
So I told people I was writing essays, and their eyes glazed over, and I dreamt of being a novelist or a better playwright so I could write things that people understood or, at least, things that would stave off the glazing of their eyes.
But I couldn’t get away from my stories, which were, let’s be honest, a lot like memoir. So I decided I should learn about the form. I mean, I was writing it; it only seemed honest to have read some. So I put on a gas mask and tied one end of a length of thread around the front door of a bookstore and the other end around my waist, and I went looking for the “memoir/autobiography/cry for help” shelf. When I found it, hidden out of embarrassment between “pets” and “fortune-telling,” I saw the usual suspects: the celebrity and addiction and abuse memoirs. I found one by Tori Spelling and opened to a random page, just to see what sort of wonders it might unleash upon my mind. It couldn’t be that bad. Somebody had published it. The passage I came to said this: “I have a pretty detailed short-term memory. I can read a script once and remember all my lines—for the next day at least.”
Just reading that made my brain hurt. It didn’t matter if it was true. Actually, it did. If it was true, then I think people would pay to see it. You could lock up Ms. Spelling in a vault and give her a script—let’s say for something really good, like Hedda Gabler—and there’d be a camera in the vault so viewers at home could watch her read the script once, and then she’d be let out of the vault and forced to perform in a live production of the play, and if she didn’t remember all her lines, they’d throw her back in the vault, except this time with a Kodiak bear.
There were a lot of books like Tori Spelling’s. Books by people who’d overcome cancer, AIDS, blackness, whiteness, wealth, insanity, and asymmetrical thumbs. Yet, moving these volumes aside with a pair of tongs, I found other books whose first pages read remarkably like novels, like this strange one by Nabokov: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.”
It was so, so, so bleak. I loved it!
The celebrity/heroin/polio memoirs were all strangely upbeat throughout, as if to reassure readers that even a story about giving birth to cloven-hoofed twins in an opium den can have a happy ending. But these other memoirs—they were fantastically honest about the banal terrors and fleeting joys of quotidian existence. Like … like … like literature.
I read them all and came to the conclusion that writing memoir did not automatically make one a jackass. I practiced saying it in the mirror.
“Memoir,” I said to myself. “Mem-war. Mem-war. Mem-war.” It sounded like memory war, which was maybe more accurate than I knew.
At first, saying it was hard. I sort of retched a little, the way children do when you make them eat French food, such as the pancreas of small cattle. But I got better. I tried different phrasings: Memoir. Memoir essays. Autobiographical stories.
The only other problem I had, the one that wouldn’t go away, was my belief that people who wrote memoirs were pathological narcissists.
I mean, who did I think I was? Who would want to read about me? The only real answer I could come up with: my mother. The other answer: this is a dumb question. Because everybody’s boring, and everybody’s interesting, and some mothers are heartless, and some can’t even read.
The better question: how do I map the expressionist strangeness of my inner life in a way that invites others to sit in the cockpit of my soul and soar through the atmosphere of me, which is the only me I’ve ever been and the only unique thing I possess anyway?
And the answer: I don’t know. It’s hard.
And the other answer: get over it.
And: God loves you even if nobody else does.
And: make yourself the bad guy. (See: Black Boy)
And: make it about other people. (See: The Boys of My Youth)
And: make it a love letter to people you love. (See: Speak, Memory)
And: make it about alien things. (See: Out of Africa)
And: make it beautiful. (See: Wind, Sand, and Stars)
And: be humble. (See: Ecclesiastes)
Seriously, be humble.
Which means you might have to humiliate yourself.
Don’t lie about your fake superhuman ability to memorize scripts.
Unless you’re willing to prove it on television.
These days, if you ask me about my new book, I’ll tell you.
“It’s a memoir,” I’ll say. And if you ask me what it’s about, I’ll tell you the truth: it’s about how I overcame my fear of creamy isthmuses.
Which is at least as true as Tori Spelling’s memoir.
Harrison Scott Key
Harrison Scott Key is the author of The World’s Largest Man (HarperCollins), which is a memoir somewhere between A River Runs through... read more
I work at the kitchen table, and sometimes my husband or son will wander in, take one look at me, and ask, “Are you OK?”... read more
An interview with Torie Bosch
Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a collaboration between Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. She was... read more
From the Editor
Robert Atwan’s “Between the Lines” column in this issue begins with his observation that memoirs have typically attracted... read more