Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It's Not the End of Anything (For Fuck's Sake)

A writing student sent the following message to me and some of her comrades this week:
I just read an article in the New Yorker about the end of the personal essay—did you all see it? And what did you think? Memoir really interests me but am I too late???http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/the-personal-essay-boom-is-over
If you haven't read the article, please, go ahead and skim it. I will wait.

Let me tell you what happened to me when I read it:
Reading it made me angry. Angry at the need to declare something is over. Angry at the assumption that all personal essays are alike. Angry at the conflation between sensationalization/confession versus reflection/contemplation. Not angry at my student - let me be clear - but at the industry, and the way people write about it.

Despite not finding a NYT post from a couple of years back about how memoir was over as a genre, or that boom done, I know I have read at least one other such opinion piece, and they tire me. Why do people need to stick in a fork and decide something is done? Good grief. The only thing done is time, and not even that is as done as we sometimes wish it were.

Finally, what this opinion piece does is lump together a bunch of different kinds of personal essays - crisis pieces, especially - and completely does not include very deep and powerful examples of steady, long-running people working in this genre. People who survive fashion, who are dedicated to deep exploration.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017


I've just finished a memoir called The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod. It addresses an inquiry I've been having lately, a debate with myself and some of my clients - mainly in my own head, and not here in the blog, but from a totally surprising perspective. To sum up, I've started posts (and not finished) about a gist that is something like:
"When is it the right time to write about something and when is it not yet?"
Or, even more accurately:
"When is it the right time to SHARE what you are writing in regards to memoir, and when isn't it yet?"

Many, if not most, memoirs, reveal something the writer has not revealed to herself previously, or to others in more public contexts. Certainly, as in the case with Zolbrod, that "telling" is of a quite private matter - being molested by a male cousin when she was younger. However, even if the revelation is about how much we actually disliked our ex, or the way our mind actually works and is less virtuous-seeming to us than it seems to others in our life, confession, exposure, telling of any sort is a bit queasy-making, and is a part of the process of memoir, like it or not.

What is it you are trying to tell the readers? And is it something that is changed in the telling? In Zolbrod's memoir, she not only tells us about the molestation, but also about the act of telling - the book opens with her telling someone for the first time. Later, near the end of the book, she reveals that she has come to understand the act of telling ITSELF changed how she saw what had happened. At the time, telling the other twelve year old girl was an attempt to show her own sexual experience; instead, the other girl made it clear that what Zolbrod was sharing was inappropriate and icky, though she was not articulate about how that was so or why. Zolbrod hadn't particularly liked the molestation, but hadn't always hated it either, and so the quest to explore who, how, why, and even if we tell began for her, in parallel to her path of healing.

Zolbrod actually resisted therapy, paralleling her journey of growing up processing the abuse on her own with the trends towards naming, pathologizing, and demonizing both sexual abuse of minors and also the "false memory" movements - both for and against. She intuited that if she were to go to a psychologist, her memories might be altered, manipulated for the case of a therapists satisfaction; in the end, the single time she saw someone, the therapist barely noted it at all, as she describes here:

She blinked behind her glasses, rims the same silver-gold color of her short hair, lenses that needed cleaning. “I’m sorry to hear that,” she said gently. “If you think it didn’t have much effect on you, you’re probably right.” 
So much for my fears that psychologists tended to see sexual molestation as the cause of any problem, which were stoked by the once widespread accusations that they pushed people to dredge up memories that weren’t even quite there. The therapist’s response was nothing like what I had feared all these years, which was that the sentences would be met with the leash-pulling certitude of a dog sniffing for a bone, with the imposition of a story that I didn’t recognize as my own. Trends in psychology must have changed since the eighties and nineties, the information about child sex abuse no longer unfolding and new. Yet I felt let down. In some ways, I suppose I was still looking for what I also had never wanted: a grown-up to take this tangled mass of yarn from my too-small hands, give it back to me balled up and explained, categorized if not taken care of. But I looked no further for a therapist who might have been able to help me understand this yearning. That kind of assistance was not to be.

This description of looking for what she never wanted blows me away. In fact, what blows me away the most in this whole memoir is Zolbrod's refusal to pinpoint her experience into a single cubbyhole. She explores her cousin's experience, her father and mother's experiences; she offers all sides then refuses to stand firmly in one spot. She will not be fixated; there is nothing to fix.

It's tempting to believe that we have to have an answer, something tied up nicely in insight form for the reader as a part of memoir. That we have gotten to a certain state of understanding and the reader will be satisfied with that as an offering. But, as I noted in this recent insidespace post, unanswerable questions are really the stuff of life, and despite the desire we may have to draw moral absolute firm and hard ground around things like childhood sexual abuse, it does reduce our experience excessively to talk about it in such dualistic language.

Zolbrod has many, many other things to say about the writing process, about abuse itself, and about telling, so I won't include it all here. But in the lines of what I have said already, Zolbrod shows great reflection in her process of deciding to write the memoir, to do it as a memoir, and talking to those affected by it in this paragraph:
My most electric writing occurred when I grappled directly with my own memories. My most clearheaded responses were to current events that raised issues of sexual abuse that resonated with my own past. I began swelling with the feeling that my own story was the one I wanted to tell. Anthony (her husband) supported me in this, even when my excavations into territory I had avoided all my life made me moody and tense, and even though he found it too painful to read what I was producing. His response contributed to a question I already had: for both myself and others, would my telling this story be more likely to heal, or help, or hurt?
This gets back to my original question - when is telling useful? And it has so much less to do with others, and more to do with what we actually intend to do with the telling. There's no one simple answer, but if you are wanting to tell in order to make a simple answer of your story, that is likely one hint that it's not a good idea for you to tell it. Not publicly. Not in memoir. 

Memoir is not "a take" on life. It should show complexity, honor with compassion all the parties involved, and include a depth and breadth of understanding. Ideally. That having been said, if you need to write it, just write it. Don't think about publication and whether or not you have equanimity. Just write it. Then, when you are ready, find someone you trust to share it with. It may turn out that's all you needed to do - write it and share it with one other person. Step by step, you can figure out how, why, and to whom you need to tell whatever it is you need to tell.