Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Your Story Doesn't Matter - And That's A Good Thing

Your story doesn't matter because it is all in how you write/tell it. 99% of your memoir writing is about your voice, your approach, your angle, your understanding, and only 1% about the story itself. Even if two people have the same pretense - writing about having grown up with alcoholic parents and how that shaped their future relationships - even the same one line summary: "Growing up with alcoholic parents, I learned love is giving your all to someone else. In my failed marriage, I learned otherwise," - there are two different books, only partially influenced by the fact that their lives are separate.

People worry to me all the time that their lives are not interesting enough. Not enough happened to them (usually, the worry goes, not enough trauma, or only trauma).  Really, truly, this is irrelevant. What matters is wanting to write about it enough to stick out a project, to really care and be curious.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Parent Memoirs With Equanimity

I love the serendipity of library roulette. I put a lot of books on hold, some of which take a long time because they are newer or rarer, some of which come in immediately.

Recently, my holds for End of Eve by Ariel Gore and Another Bullshit Night In Suck City by Nick Flynn came in at the same time. I groaned - whoa - that's two heavy "parents-with-mental-health-challenges" memoirs at once. But the timing turned out to be quite in tune.

ABNiSC is Flynn's memoir about the incredible intersection of his father's life and his own. He grows up without his dad, only really meeting him when Nick Flynn is in his 20's, after his mom has committed suicide. How they meet, however, is the crux - by the time thy meet, Nick is working in a homeless shelter and his dad is near-homeless, eventually winding up in the same place where Nick works.

EoE is about a two year period in Ariel Gore's life when her mom is dying of  stage four lung cancer. Gore moves her entire life - son, partner at that time, house - to where her mom wants to be as she dies. Of course, what was supposed to take a few months took two years, and revealed even deeper layers of her mother's narcissism (something Gore had struggled with for years) in the dying process.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Structure as Liberation: Unmastered

I finally read Katherine Angel's memoir Unmastered: A Book on Desire (Most Difficult to Tell). It had a strangely warm welcoming in 2012 in England - I say strange because it is a pretty direct and robust memoir about sexuality, and because England doesn't have the same memoir trend happening as in the States.

At a surface level, for me, this book is by a vanilla, heterosexual, cis-gendered academic woman exploring the edges of BDSM. Normally I wouldn't touch a book like that - I am much more interested in queer experience, as it is closer to my own, and playing with much more explicit depth around gender and power.

However, just like the apparent content and identity, the structure - complex but often showing just a few words a page - belies the complexity and depth of this book.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Memoir and Face As Time Code

Ruth Ozeki, who made the incredible short film on her grandmother which I have written about here before (Halvinf the Bones) has come out with a genius short memoir called The Face: A Time Code (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1632060523/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_api_6PUvxbX216BW2).

This incredible tiny title chronicles her watching her own face in a mirror for three hours. That's it. But it's so profound - her reflections on impermanence, self and lack of self, aging and racism, are all mind-blowingly astute, accurate and poignant.

To whit:
Eleven years prior to my birth, my two halves had been mortal enemies. My mother’s people were killing my father’s people, and vice versa, and at a very young age, I was aware of this enmity and aware, too, that I embodied it. And yet my face evinced its opposite: the force of the attraction—true love, sex, miscegenation, call it what you will—that brought me into being. With all these primal and contrary passions eddying below the surface of my skin, it’s no wonder people found my face disturbing.

I myself have been pondering the classic Buddhist Koan which asks what your face was before your parents were born. The fact that Ozeki opens with this question drew me in immediately. This question deeply gets at interdependence and the lack of a beginning or ending of a single self. Ozeki, in her prologue:
What did your face look like before your parents were born? I first read this koan when I was eight or maybe nine years old. Someone had given me a little book called Zen Buddhism or perhaps the book had belonged to my parents and I’d taken it from their shelves, thinking it ought to be mine. The book was small and slim, the perfect size for a child to hold, but more importantly, it had a friendly face, which made it stand out from the other duller books on my parents’ shelves.

She even interrogates the face of the book! And wonders about the nature of faces all together:
What makes a face so special? It’s just an organizational device. A planar surface housing a cluster of holes, a convenient gathering place for the sense organs.
Such an intelligent and genuine line of personal questioning from one of my favorite playful zen philosophers. 

And, of course, Ozeki also looks at her own process as an author and filmmaker:
It was so hard to put my first film out into the world, to publish my first novel, to break my family’s silence. I suspect all families have this, some code of silence that is absolute and inviolable and yet so omnipresent as to be almost invisible, too. Like God. Or air.

Noh masks, classic films and plays both Japanese and American, a million small moments of irritation and curiousity - this great small experiment is a treasure of a mini memoir. And, as always, her humor:
01:36:41 As a Zen priest, I probably shouldn’t be using makeup at all. Isn’t there a precept against lipstick? If not, shouldn’t there be? Surely I should be a bit less attached to my physical appearance by now, no? Is my lingering attachment a barometer of my unenlightened state? The author in me is apparently still vain. She is still trying. Is there a time when a woman is officially old enough to stop caring?

Yes, even Zen priests still care about their aging faces, at least female Ruth Ozeki ones do.