Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Young Memoir

I just read this wonderful article on NYT about writing memoir before one is forty.
One of the things I love in her argument is the understanding that writing real-time, without the lenses which come later in life, has its own merit.

Generally, in the memoir world, age and distance is favored. Generally I favor it myself! Having begun work on memoir writing in my early 30's, I, too, experienced some of the same derision or disbelief she did. When I told them it was two memoirs, I got scoffs. Then, if they were at all interested, they would ask what I had to write about so early on.

"I lost both my parents by age 20, and I am married to a transgender woman."
"Oh," was the frequent response.
But having something to write about is not the same as being able to write about it.

The classic quote from Flannery O'Connor goes like this:
Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.
It is often presented more along the lines of "has enough to write about," and that's what I mean it to represent here. I don't think there's a single person out there without an interesting story, much to the chagrin of some of my clients and students who want me to tell them their story is either much more interesting or too boring to bother with. What makes the difference is HOW you write it. Usually, that means writing from a later date, far later date - decades later - when you can have a spin on what happened, a different perspective. But sometimes the real-time writing is valid, even more valuable, even if embarrassing.

I vacillate, personally; just the other day I considered how much perspective I have gained from writing about my parents and early childhood - so much perspective that I am now nervous to put anything down in published form, though I am happy to keep writing about it and discovering as I write. I have often, even here, encouraged people to not use writing as a way to complain, to pinpoint others, to blame - and those are some of the risks we take when we write with little distance, right into the situation, not a decades-later perspective.

But the fact is, I don't buy the idea, popularly held, that age naturally makes us wiser. It just doesn't. Really. We have to work for our insights, and those of us write our way through them, often multiple times. If an early way of working through it gets published, then good. There's no loss there. Though a later looking-back voice might be more acceptable for an older audience, younger audiences are going to relate more with a writer who is younger, whose voice and approach is closer to the time it happened.

Especially in a recent blog post, where I discuss Ta-Nehisi Coates and his two memoirs, we can really see the benefit of an earlier voice/book paired with a later voice/book. Not better than but both/and.

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