Thursday, July 30, 2015

Memoir versus Memoire

"Stop Reflection" Canal St Martin, Paris 2015
This year in France I faced a gap I had sensed was there before, but didn't really research. This gap is between the American world of memoir - someone doing book-length or essay-length writing about a particular period or theme in their life - and the lack of such a category in French literature.

Does this mean that no one has written memoir in French? Not at all. But the tendency in French literature is towards either fiction or autobiography - autobiography being more a factual description of the entire life of someone famous, written by themselves. While personal essays certainly exist, the tendency with essays and other personal writing is more towards intellectual writing.

And the word "memoire" - which means "memory" - refers to a very academic project, akin to someone's thesis or dissertation.

When I say in French literature, I literally mean literature written in French, from France - not meaning "outre-mer", Canadian, or post-colonial literature, aka "Francophone." There you can find stronger examples - Dany Laferriere's writing, for instance, which skirts the lines between memoir and fiction. He is a Haitian writer who began writing in earnest once he exiled to Quebec. But for the most part, only famous people have gotten away with anything akin to what we would call memoir. Simone de Beauvoir, so famous for her huge feminist tome The Second Sex, wrote four great memoirs; though they are referred to as a four-volume autobiography, they often have more the tone of memoir . However, your average person couldn't get away with publishing something so personal, so akin to what we call memoir in the States.

My French students are hungry for it, though. They desperately want to be able to write their own stories, whether or not they get published. In fact, they have an even more realistic understanding that they may not get published. They are blown away by the idea that others write this kind of thing, that others want to read it, in a more fundamental way that the average self-doubting American is blown away by reading memoir or hearing about it.

I am excited to dig into this exploration with them, a firmly new ground. I know others have come before, and I can't wait to find them. I know others must be doing similar things, and I am lined up to collaborate. Let's get deep into memories, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and all the good ground of life that French minds will love to explore. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mental Health Memoir

In the last few months, I have found myself coaching four separate people working on memoirs about mental health struggles. The more I work with groups and individuals on these issues, the more it becomes clear to me how essential these stories are. How rarely they are told with accuracy, total honesty, and just how hard it is to express the experience of struggling with reality, or what you are told is reality, in a way that can be conveyed clearly.

I asked one student recently if she could explain more clearly, for instance, what is it like to lose time? She experienced a manic period a few years ago, and for a month or so she couldn't seem to track time. I asked her if this is considered normal - not because I needed to normalize her experience, but just to give some context. Yes, she said, but she didn't know that until later. She's reluctant - understandably - to explain what was going on since at the time she didn't know. It feels truer to her experience to just tell it like it was, which is to say that she not only lost time but wasn't particularly aware of it, much less losing it.