Sunday, July 17, 2011

The memoirist's lament

Here at WWPD, I've often mentioned that writers need to hold off telling all about their own kids. Even if the kids are not named, and even if the author does not have the same last name as said kids. So I of course turned immediately to Dani Shapiro's essay on being a memoir-writer as well as the parent of an at least reasonably intelligent 12-year-old boy. No doubt a rich source of material on this front.

The piece is mostly about the ickiness of having already written R-rated accounts of one's younger days,"with no thought that some day I might have a child." On this, I sympathize with Shapiro. The think-of-the-children-ness that permeates women's lives from the moment they conceive a child on has a way of extending to thinking of children not-yet-conceived, of relationships that don't yet exist. A woman's entire life prior to having kids should not be conducted with thoughts of what would be best for entities not yet around - and that may never come into being - in mind.*

Shapiro does, however, mention the issue of writing about her child, which is the question that interests me more. And her answer, while a good deal better than much of the 'and you wouldn't believe what was in his nightstand drawer!' genre has to offer, is not altogether satisfactory:

Every memoirist makes her own set of rules to write and to live by, and in these 12 years, the strictest rule to which I have adhered has been this: Before I have written anything about my son, I have asked myself whether I could imagine him turning to me some day, and saying, I wish you hadn’t told that story about me. But of course the boy I know today has not yet grown into the man he will someday become. Right now, he likes the fact that he sometimes appears in my work. He has read my most recent memoir, “Devotion,” though in truth I think he’s skimmed it for his own name. He thinks it’s cool when I mention him in an interview. (He would enjoy being written about in this essay, though I have no intention of showing it to him.) But he may not always feel this way, and so I can’t possibly know; all I can do is try to protect his privacy while not censoring myself to the point of muteness.
And what, exactly, is wrong with "muteness" on topics where she'd even have to think to ask herself what her son might think? It is really not for her to know what would or would not be problematic. If, for example, I were to learn that one of my parents had written a racy memoir, that's not a book I'd read, but I can't imagine caring, now or at 12. But if I, the theoretical 12-year-old, were to find an article in which the racy-memoir-writing parent had speculated that I needed to be kept away from said memoir, because it would obviously fascinate me to no end, that probably would tick me off. And I could well see not wanting it broadcast via the NYT website that I liked NPR. (If anyone's making it known that I sometimes chuckle to "Wait Wait...," that'll be me.)

It's strange that Shapiro remarks that she wouldn't show her son this very essay. The boy is 12, literate, and could well stumble upon it in the highly accessible in both senses NYT book review section. If she really does think that's likely to set forth a series of events culminating in his knowing all and being horrified, she might have considered that when writing now, even if she ought not to have worried about not-yet-conceived children when writing the memoir in question.

Shapiro does not consider, in other words, that not writing at all about her son is also an option. The reason she gives is that what she does is art: "[A]s a writer, my inner life is my only instrument," she explains, which strikes me as a bizarre defense of writing in ways that ruin the relationships you have with your adult family members, let alone screwing things up for your kids. Remember "fiction"? That genre in which an author's "inner life" is spun in such a way as to only inadvertently offend? Unless the idea is that memoir is less writing, more performance-art-by-word-processor. I have no idea.

Perhaps my own take on this issue is skewed by the fact that I have a higher bar for what I'll consider discussing here than "blogger" without "political" as a modifier implies. I'm in my 20s, I've lived in Park Slope, I'm female, I write in the first person... and yet, not much in the overshare department. Shapiro, meanwhile, writes that prior to having a kid, "the people in my life — parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends — had felt like fair game." This is not something I've ever felt for so much as a moment. Anything I would not want announced to such individuals, let alone anything personal about them, stays out.

While I'm sure a great deal of this is a personality difference between Shapiro and myself, some of it is also the way blogging as a medium works, namely that long before you have any other audience, "parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, boyfriends, friends" - that's your readership right there. Whereas if you're a professional, established memoirist, you'll have other readers as well from the get-go. Whatever possible upside there'd be from revealing aspects of yourself you wouldn't want that audience to know, or details about those folks that they might have preferred you leave out, this is outweighed, not only, as it might be for some memoirists, by a desire not to hurt, but also by the fact that the readers who don't know your life, who'd perhaps be prepared, thanks to your clever writing skills, to take your side, simply don't exist, or if they do, the response to a controversial post will still be 99% from those in your life. That, and much that would not be terribly controversial to a general readership would within the context of a family, in which case make that 100% family-response, all remaining readers having skipped over that post. (That, and a blogger with a day job is also aware of employers' abilities to use the Internet, while someone making a living writing memoirs is hardly going to be penalized for having revealed too much.)

There's a fine line between Art and Broigus, and for those of us without external validation that what we're doing is the former, whining on the Internet is just whining on the Internet, and is awfully close to calling up that uncle and giving him an unsolicited piece of your mind. Once, however, one is producing literature, it probably sort of is necessary to write on, even if one's family will be shocked, shocked, shocked, which they likely will be whether or not one calls the resulting text "fiction." But still. All the more reason, if you have a large readership, think of the children. Your own, that is, and leave them out.

*But also, in this instance, what old-enough-to-read-real-books kid wants to read about his own parents' sex lives, prior to, with, or subsequent to each other? All she'd have to do is tell him that her memoir contains information about his own mother that he doesn't want to know. And, given that the normal human way is to not want to think about one's parents as having been involved in anything racy, even that to which we owe our own existence, the son will happily skip reading that book. Even if that means never learning about which drugs she did or didn't take, something children might more reasonably be curious about. A 12-year-old boy may well want to read about sex, but not if his mother is the protagonist.

If anything, I think Shapiro's concerns are less about Motherhood vs. Art and more the worries that come from an excess of thinking about one's self - a plus, perhaps, in a memoirist, but it's useful to remember that one is not the protagonist in anyone else's life but one's own, and that certainly by 12, one's parents are not the central sources of interest in one's existence. And once one has reached the stage of adolescence during which being seen with one's parents is embarrassing, one is well past the point of imagining one's parents are or always were saints. Meanwhile, no adult worthy of the name could care less about their parents' private lives, unless, say, the parent is so debauched as to need to move in with his children for that reason. Thus Dan Savage's sound advice to the occasional (grown-up) callers who are all OMG when they find out something about their parents that's none of their business. If, as an adult, Shapiro's son becomes curious about her oeuvre, or say he's writing up his own memoirs, and he's confident that he can read the memoir as Art, or suspend a bit of disbelief, and not get skeeved out, then that's for him to decide.


Britta said...

A friend's mother's former boyfriend went on to become a somewhat successful writer, and there is basically a lightly fictionalized sex scene in one of his books based on his experience my friend's mother (the book is also dedicated to her.) My friend (late 20s) has known this for a very long time and is not particularly grossed out but also has absolutely no desire to read the book.

Relatedly, something I didn't realize is that a guy who writes for the New York Review of Books supplement dated my sister, and at one point not terribly long ago had some review in which he talked about break up and heartbreak and ex-girlfriends, etc, which I read in ignorant bliss until my sister told me it was about her. It wasn't so obvious I picked it up from the article, but was kind of like eating something that tasted ok until you learned it was boiled chicken fetus.

On writing about children, I wonder if this is an issue since memoirs have gone from being the province of successful old men (who had more important things to write about than the children they never saw) to pretty much anyone with a computer, some time to kill, and an overinflated sense of their own writing ability. I blame decades of creative writing teachers pushing "write what you know," which people seem to have taken literally, rather than in the more figurative sense that I thought it was meant to be.

I know this has also come up as an issue of FB with pictures of people's kids. Most people I know happily post photos of their kids, some refuse to, and some go overboard with 50 million naked photos. I personally think it's fairly innocuous, but it's interesting to think that FB is taking the place of the photo album, the original of which wasn't private in that friends and relatives could still look at your naked baby photos, but not public in the way that the now anyone even remotely connected to your parents' FB page can look at your naked baby photos for perpetuity. I guess the same is true of internet mommy-blogging; moms have been telling embarrassing stories about kids for probably forever, but now the possibility of a larger audience is greater and the words are more permanent. It's interesting to think about the furor around the woman who wrote an article on how she loved her son more than her daughter, and ended up going all Sophie's choice on her kids. A lot of people noted that plenty of mothers with multiple young children have dark feelings that are not motherly from time to time, but writing it publicly on a blog where in 10 years the daughter can read that her mother would rather she die than her brother is probably a pretty terrible idea. Moreover, writing can fix and encapsulate feelings that are probably a lot more confused and fleeting and ambiguous. It's possible that in a week the mother might feel the reverse, or get out of her funk and feel nothing but overwhelming love for both her kids, or whatever, but with something like that on the internet, I am pretty sure the daughter will be majorly messed up if she reads that and pretty rightfully feel her mother didn't really love her (I don't know if I could forgive my mother if she wrote something like that about me). It's possible my mother did have thoughts like that when I was being a brat, but luckily for both of us she never verbalized them or broadcasted them to the world. The mother in question revised the post, but there are enough comments and quotes floating around the internet that the daughter could probably piece together the original if she wanted to.

Britta said...

On blogging, I know this is much lower stakes, but with commenting I'm always feel a little exposed. Even though I just use my first name, it's uncommon enough that with a few revealing facts (like where I study), someone could easily figure out who I was. My first and last name together are google unique (probably world unique), so it's not like I can use my real name but hide behind its genericness. Sometimes I wish I used a pseudonym, but I'm terrible at thinking up pseudonyms, and I don't usually plan on trolling a blog or using the comments to reveal my secret repugnant political views, so I figure that I should just comment mostly non-anonymously. (Although there are definitely comments I've later cringed at, or whose tone I later realize is totally off from what I was going for).

Miss Self-Important said...

So what does it mean to be a professional memoirist? How many memoirs can you plausibly write when you're just one person? Or do you purposely live in ways that maximize your life's marketability and publish every moment separately?

Phoebe said...


As usual, everything you write makes sense to me!

"A lot of people noted that plenty of mothers with multiple young children have dark feelings that are not motherly from time to time, but writing it publicly on a blog where in 10 years the daughter can read that her mother would rather she die than her brother is probably a pretty terrible idea. Moreover, writing can fix and encapsulate feelings that are probably a lot more confused and fleeting and ambiguous."

Exactly. These are feelings worth recording, but not worth attributing to the parenting of specific children. I mean, yes, motherhood is a valid topic for discussion, but that doesn't mean one's own children need to be discussed.

"I blame decades of creative writing teachers pushing "write what you know," which people seem to have taken literally, rather than in the more figurative sense that I thought it was meant to be."

Yes. Thus the waning appeal of writing fiction.

Phoebe said...


This is not something that fully makes sense to me either (or maybe it did, when I used "autobiography" as one of the categories for my qualifying exam), but going by some NPR (?) podcast I listened to recently, the difference between autobiography and memoir is that the former is the full life story of a famous person, the latter a thematic slice of the life of whomever. So, a "drinking" memoir, an eating-disorder memoir, a parenting memoir, and so forth. By that standard, if people are paying for your writing-about-self, you're a professional memoirist. And if you've had a life out of a Lifetime movie, or better yet, if your problems coincide with those of the typical Park Slope mom/Slate DoubleX columnist, then this is a viable career option.

Britta said...

What if you had both? Say, you start an affair with a guy you volunteer with at the Park Slope Co-op, but unbeknownst to you, his wife is in your Mommy and Me playgroup, and she has a bugaboo stroller and you don't, and lords it over you, so you hire your lover to take her out, only to discover that he's her husband? I see great potential.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yeah, I don't think I'd dignify that career with the moniker "memoirist." Chronic oversharer, reliably employed navel-gazer, self-brander, even blogger, maybe. Plus, it seems ultimately unsustainable unless you dedicate yourself to living for the sake of writing about living. Even David Sedaris's seemingly bottomless well of memoiresque material eventually ran dry.

Phoebe said...


Get writing!


This is not my favorite genre, either, but I'm not seeing why you object to naming it. My point in using that terminology was to distinguish between the amateur oversharer (i.e. the person whose Facebook updates one might hide) and the sort who a) gets paid for this, and b) has a readership made up mostly of people who don't know the author personally. It's not about it being a dignified genre, but about the difference between a tell-all blog and publication/success. If it's a genre with a limited lifespan for each indiv. author, how is that not "professional" all the same? We make that distinction with sports, modeling, etc.