Tuesday, July 5, 2016
People often tell me if they grew up in the suburbs, they have nothing to write in terms of memoir.*
However, due to my great privilege to read the minds (on paper) of people who did grow up in suburbia, through wonderful unpublished and published pieces, I can directly attest to the falseness of this claim. Besides, it seems to be an extension of the "boring life" fear, which is actually never an issue, since you don't have to have an exciting life to write memoir - just be willing to write about it directly, clearly, with connection, and honesty.**
Recently, a writer I follow named Harriet Alida Lye, published a lovely piece on Hazlitt about being from a Toronto suburb. She speaks to the power of the landscape that shaped her, even though she's had the great honor to also live in Toronto and even Paris. Paris may be more romantic, more likely to sell than Richmond Hills, but the fact is, Richmond Hills is where she is from.***
A boyfriend once said of Appleton, Wisconsin, where I grew up, that it was a suburb without a city to be attached to. Astute. Appleton's distinct blandness is the suburb-like tone of a place counting on a larger city to make it more appealing. Only except for Green Bay, Appleton is the largest city in Northeastern Wisconsin, and Green Bay, a half hour away, is hardly a metropolis to harbor 'burbs.
The lesson of writing what we know, where we are from, where we have lived now and where we were born, is a continual one in accepting who we are, what our experience is, which is key to the right tone of voice to keep in memoir. Memoir isn't confession, it isn't expulsion of dark secrets.
It's simply revealing what life is, next to what life was. Life happens everywhere - even in the suburbs. Fact is, since the 50's, suburbia has grown and continues to grow at a rapid pace. Writing about your life in suburbia may go even further than simply expressing your truth - chances are it can counter the false faces of shows like Desperate Housewives and instead connect others who are ashamed of their milquetoast past in a deeply universal way. Go for it.
*I am speaking here of specifically the North American suburban phenomenon. Suburbs act really differently in other countries - the main one I know being France, where suburbs are actually where immigrants fled to after being driven from cities by white Parisians, for instance. Inverse white flight.
**I also suspect this fear of writing about suburbia has something to do with avoiding the complications around white flight in North America, wherein suburbs were built not only to house the prosperous returning soldiers from WWII, but also expanded rapidly as people of color moved into cities and white people fled to surrounding areas. For now, that's another issue, but I wanted to point to some of the secret white guilt I suspect underlies some fear of the "boredom" of 'burbs. As a white friend who lives in Marin County recently pointed out, he and his wife have traded "danger and tons of culture for safety and zero culture" - code for moving out of mixed race/class areas in Oakland and into a purely white, rich area. If you grew up in a rich, white place, or even middle class boring white place, that doesn't mean your story isn't worth telling. It just means it will be different from a different class and race story.
***Bonus: Read Alida Lye's wonderful piece questioning whether a disillusionment with the City of Light actually exists here. And reading list for a couple of great memoirs explicitly about suburbia, though if you pay attention, lots of memoirs actually take place in them:
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir by D.J. Waldie
Blue Suburbia: An Almost Memoir by Laurie Lico Albanese