Friday, October 2, 2015
Who Tells and How They Tell
I re-read Kay Redfield Jamison's Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness recently. I've been called to work with numerous people on memoirs that include psychosis and mania, so I knew it was time to look at how a major bestseller depicts this realm.
One of the things that is powerful in re-reading a book like this years after the initial reading is noticing how much I have changed, and how much the market has changed. Redfield Jamison, an academic and brilliant woman, writes about her experience mostly through telling. She uses very occasional scenes to show experiences of mania and depression, but for the most part she narrates what happened, and summarizes, relying on her own creedance as a researcher and psychologist to stand behind her story.
This is understandable. In 1996 in particular, memoir was less in a place of confession or even direct story revealing, and more a short version of autobiography.
In fact, one often-used summary of this book describes it as a "scientific autobiography." That does not mean it lacks in feeling - it has lots of feelings as well as a strong felt sense of experience, at times. But it does mean that who she is as a person - someone with compassion for madness but also someone who has had to fight for her right to practice despite her own diagnoses - continues to do so even in her writing. And in fact, in comparison to what came before Unquiet Mind, her book is quite personal - including very vulnerable passages, honesty about taking and not taking meds, etc.
Only now, when I send my students to read this memoir, I encourage them to balance it out with a more scene-based, personal memoir like Elyn Saks' The Center Cannot Hold, or You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know by Heather Sellers. This is not just because my bias tends in this direction - the more expressive, story and scene based world of memoir, but also so we can feel out how the similar stories can be told in so many different ways. And how what is being told has a very natural relationship to the structure/style of the telling. It's part market, part voice, and part story and what best serves it.
This is one of myriad reasons to read as many different writers in the area you are writing memoir as possible. When I started working on Bermuda Triangles, thinking it was about my sexuality, I read all the confessional sex memoirs available at the time, but found only one really spoke to me - Loose Girl, a Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen. I now realize it's not just the style - profound, looking at under story, not giving in to the sexual bravado of so many other of that book's cohort - but also that it turns out my story is less about sexuality and more about loss and the struggle to find love, in a self-sabotaging way - through sex. I related to how Cohen tells the story because I related to the story. This was the first time I found someone speaking the truth about what is under promiscuity in a way that wasn't preachy.
Reviewers struggled with the quick-solution quality of the end of Cohen's memoir. This is helpful for me to keep in mind, as I look for the right angle, journey towards healing in mine. As we all look at other memoirs, balancing out the unnecessity of comparison for competition's sake ("This book is so much better than what I would write," blah blah blah) but also becoming aware of possibilities for how and what gets told ("Do I include the sex I had the first time because it makes a good story, but doesn't serve the larger story? And do I tell it from now or then perspective?"), it's important to keep in mind that the possibilities are endless. Nothing is determined by what we have lived or what has been written by others before. But finding a relationship between who is telling, what perspective, how it is told and what is being said is significant. We can write about voice, style, structure until the cows come home, but unless it comes from the inside out, it will be a mis-fit.
Not everyone is going to like certain stories, no matter how they are told. Someone as wildly off set structure as Lydia Yuknavitch, for instance, in her memoir of trauma and sexuality Chronology of Water, won't suit most readers, not in a way that even Cohen does. Yet Yuknavitch isn't interested in reaching everyone. She knows her audience consists of readers seeking rawness, audacity and not-yet-healedness. She had to know herself very well before she could do this, and also recognize what she still needed to work through.
As we write our stories, the stories, the memories, the style and voice change, shift and grow. Finding the right one is a matter of confluence. If we wait long enough, that, too, will change. There is no one right answer, but learning where it feels right - and doesn't - by reading others' works really helps us to recognize that sensation in others' in-progress writing and especially in our own.
Ultimately the satisfaction of matching voice, style, perspective and story is up to us and no one else. And ultimately the rewards of that work are for us, and not for others. Though, like so many other kinds of healing, what truly benefits us will benefit others.