Mother, May I?
January 29, 2015
What games did you play growing up? My brother and I had lots of board games – Monopoly, Chutes and Ladders, Candyland. Outside he shot hoops; I was partial to hopscotch and jacks, always practicing. With other kids in the neighborhood, we played Hide ‘n Seek, Red Light/Green Light, or Mother, May I? With the later, failure to ask permission from “Mother” to advance meant returning to the start and beginning again. Ah, that was the rub.
When writing a memoir or life history, do you first ask permission to write about a loved one or do you skip that step and apologize later? It’s an age-old dilemma. Going back several years to 2007, Slate magazine ran a series of articles by memoirists, including one by Mary Karr, author of Liar’s Club and Cherry. In her essay below, Karr notes she was always upfront and personal with her friends and family.
The Liar’s Club: How I told my friends I was writing about my childhood—and what they said in return. By Mary Karr
As soon as you start to leave things out—to shape a tale—you’re maneuvering the actual. Can I tell about the boy who raped me without investigating who may have raped him as a child (data that would certainly spin the moral compass a few degrees at least)? Not without dismantling history. Hence the innate scorn with which memoirists get treated—it’s a scuzzy business at best, displaying your wounds in the marketplace, making close compatriots into “characters.” How dare I? I did take a few precautions.
Every major character in both memoirs (still alive) was alerted to the project in advance and “warned” about scenes they might find troubling—i.e., I told my mother I intended to recount her psychotic break. I told my best high-school friend (Meredith) that I’d describe her cutting herself, as well as her brother’s stint in jail. My pals who show up in Cherry were alerted as well—Clarice (from grade school), Meredith, John Cleary (the first boy I ever kissed), Doonie (the drug dealer), Stacy (an acid-taking volleyballer), along with two high-school boyfriends and my remaining family. While I didn’t call them for “research” purposes, many told me stories I’d forgotten that wound up in print. Those folks are always thanked up front.
Maybe it’s strange that—given my advanced age—I’ve stayed in touch with all these people through the years. Doonie, Stacey, Clarice, Meredith (until she died a few years back), John Cleary, and I remained (and remain) close. Definition: We continue to celebrate each other’s birthdays, at least by phone call and Hallmark card. We speak at Christmas. Every few years, we visit. Many of these folks joined me at the Texas Book Festival in 2000 when Cherry came out.
Maybe this ongoing closeness made writing about them easier. Or maybe they’re just tolerant individuals, which they’d have to be to associate with me for so long.
Once the manuscript was completed, I sent it to these primary characters for fear I’d misremembered or misrepresented them. The one small complaint I got was from a rock musician (an ex-beau) who worried that I said he’d smoked pot as a teenager—a scene he didn’t deny but now found embarrassing. I offered to take the scene out but refused to change how I remembered it. He preferred it stay in.
The large complaint involved my friend Meredith. She asked that I take out the scene of her cutting herself with a razor. She didn’t mind if I reinserted it in later editions, after her elderly mother died. To write it and blur the identity of the “cutter” seemed a fat lie to the reader—plus, it’s a different kind of betrayal: Watching a stranger taking a razor to herself just differs—morally speaking—from watching a dear pal. So, I’d initially intended to cut the chapter altogether. Then “Stacey,” our volleyball-playing pal, said she’d prefer to claim the cutting acts as her own. Stacey felt the scene was socially relevant and in some way “true” and that the book would suffer from its absence. This is the only intentional falsehood I’ve consciously constructed—other than fake names. It’s the one time I’ve let literature rule over fact. And now that Meredith and her mother are both dead, I correct the score.
Oh, and the Liars’ Club stories in that book (minus one I’d tape recorded) were sheer fiction, but since they deal with frozen farts and the like, I figured their historical accuracy would never be under dispute.
After both books’ publications, several minor neighborhood characters and teachers wrote me or came to hear me speak. It tickled me that a number of the guys I surfed with at Meekham’s Pier showed up at a bookstore in Houston. The oddest character participating was an old pal who’d vanished into the Witness Protection Program back in the late ’70s. The greater complaint has been that I didn’t use real names or the real name of our town. In other words, people preferred to be affiliated with their representations in the book. Some folks were pissed I left them out.
I’m certain that I’ve forgotten, blurred, or misremembered a zillion events, characters, and details large and small. Also, at this point in literary history, it’s understood that memoir is not an act of history but an act of memory, which is innately corrupt. That said, I believe a writer makes a contract with the reader to tell the truth. I try to stick with the stuff that’s stuck hardest with me. And if I don’t recall something I know the reader will wonder about, I announce it’s been forgotten. In the one case when a family member differed not on facts but on their interpretation (my sister remembered a grandmother I found malign as a nice old lady), I told the reader as much (I added—not so slyly!— that the same sister also voted for Ronald Reagan: twice). Maybe I’ve avoided complaints due to my own character—not that it’s stellar, but the converse: If someone’s behaving like an asshole in my book, it most always tends to be me.
Beware Low-Lying Fruit
January 22, 2015
Have you started writing your memoir, but you’re wondering if you’ve struck the right tone? Take some advice from author Tobias Wolff, known for his memoirs, particularly This Boy’s Life, and short stories.
“Don’t approach history as something to be shaken for its cautionary fruits. Don’t be afraid of appearing angry, small-minded, obtuse, mean, immoral, amoral, calculating, or anything else. Take no care for your dignity.”
– Tobias Wolff to Mary Karr, before she began writing Liar’s Club
I’m So Hooked On Six-word Memoirs
January 17, 2015
Following through on my last post, I bought the book. I visited the website. I read lots of interviews with Larry Smith.
The book is It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs. It’s one in a series on life, love, and trying to make sense of it all in six words, no more, no less.
The website is sixwordmemoirs.com, where, after registering, everyone is welcome to share their pithy and concise personal history.
And Larry Smith is the founder of SMITH magazine. He was inspired by Ernest Hemingway, who, when challenged to come up with a six-word story, wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Smith, in turn, challenged writers, even if they had not written anything since leaving school, to develop six-word memoirs. It’s amazing the attitudes, emotions, and humor that pour forth under such constraints. Thousands have found it liberating.
The craze has been going on for quite a while, years even. Schools, churches, politics, tech groups, and senior citizen organizations, such as AARP, have adopted it, but I just discovered it. What does that say about me? And can I say it in six words?
As a personal historian, I thought I should give it a try. I came up with: “Born a Baby Boomer. Still am.” I’m happy with this. It describes me. I believe each generation is different from the preceding one, shaped by social and cultural events that occurred in their lifetime.
Then I wrote six words, let’s call it a biography, for my husband: “Berkeley to Boston. Brrrrr. Back West.” He thought it was amusing. I thought it was spot on. He gets cold watching the winter weather forecast across the country on television.
Smith’s own account is: “Big hair, big heart, big hurry.” One of his others can be purchased on a t-shirt: “Now I obsessively count the words.”
I do, too. I came across a quote from Marilyn Monroe and checked: yep, it’s six words. I think it makes a great six-word memoir: “I am trying to find myself.” Are you?
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
Word game. Game time. Time line.
January 12, 2015
On a quiet weekend in the new year I went on Amazon to check out memoirs. I wanted to see what was on the list, be it old, new, naughty, nice, or soon to be released.
I scrolled past The Glass Castle and Liar’s Club, both of which I’ve read.
I was familiar with Brighton Beach Memoirs, a semiautobiographical play, and Memoirs of a Geisha, a historical novel. As neither is a memoir, I moved on.
Wild and American Sniper are both showing on the big screen, so I passed on them, too. Why curl up on the sofa with a book, when you can go out and see a movie?
Making my way to the 296th listing on the 25th page, I came across It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure. The title is self-explanatory.
I was not familiar with it or its prequel, Not Quite What I was Planning, by the editors of SMITH magazine, an online site dedicated to storytelling in whatever form it takes. But I was intrigued by the reviews:
“Will thrill minimalists and inspire maximalists.” (Vanity Fair)
“The brilliance is in the brevity.” (New York Post)
“A perfect distraction and inspiration.” (Denver Post)
“Dude’s weird premise yields interesting stories.” (Ira Glass, NPR’s This American Life)
“Six-word memoirs leave book lover speechless.” (Rocky Mountain News)
And there were the quotes, in this case “memoirs,” from renowned, as well as unknown, authors on the back cover:
“Father: ‘Anything but journalism.’ I rebelled.” —Malcolm Gladwell
“Shiny head. Hippie hair. Shiny head.” —Wally Lamb
“Bipolar, no two ways about it.” —Jason Owen
“I still practice my Oscar speech.” —Jennifer Labbienti
“So would you believe me anyway?” —James Frey
“The miserable childhood leads to royalties.” —Frank McCourt
I always want to inspire fellow personal historians, so I bought a copy. I’ll keep you posted.
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
Resolutions for Personal Historians
January 7, 2015
© 2015 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved
Give a Whistle
January 1, 2015
On New Year’s Day, laugh and smile and dance and sing. It’s the right side, the light side, the bright side of a brand new year. Happy 2015!!
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
And…. always look on the bright side of life… (Whistle)
Always look on the light side of life… (Whistle)
If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing
When you’re feeling in the dumps
Don’t be silly chumps
Just purse your lips and whistle - that’s the thing.
And…always look on the bright side of life… (Whistle)
Always look on the right side of life… (Whistle)
– Eric Idle of Monty Python for Life of Brian, 1979