The Sufferer in the Mirror

Memoir-writers would appear to have it easy. After all, whom do they know best, in theory, but themselves? The key to this question is “in theory.” Hollywood and sports stars can sail by with superficial “and then this bad thing happened, but I learned a lot” memoirs, because they are, well, stars, and in some misguided sense, we already feel we know them. The rest of us have to dig way deeper.

Aspiring memoirists may be encouraged to expose their most “gut-wrenching secrets” right up front. Chapter one. Even page one. But parading a set of difficult experiences—drug addiction, infidelity, abuse—across the literary stage like cardboard scenery is not sufficient. We’ve all read that. Seen the movie. More than once. The writer’s unique persona and individual reaction to these stock situations are what makes a new version of this play worth mounting. It may take a few—even quite a few—pages to create the character for whom these traumatic experiences have meaning. Writers who merely put their emotional debris on display treat readers like voyeurs. Less experienced writers, encouraged to reveal their darkest moments, may not have the self-understanding that is as much a part of the story as the drug-addled sex in the seedy hotel room.

Author and writing teacher Susan Shapiro in her recent essay, “Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.,” supports the idea of immediately sharing emotional traumas, of hooking readers early in order to make readers care. Another memoir teacher and literary agent—Brooke Warner—responded to Shapiro with her own essay, “Memoir Is Not the Trauma Olympics.” Warner counters that “real misery memoir works when you drip in the painful stuff little by little.”

Following these two essays, journalism teacher Katie Roiphe wrote “This Is How Your Write a Memoir” for Slate. Her common-sense advice ends with the observation that “expressing yourself is not enough.” Just because an event is true, doesn’t mean it can be written about without the care and attention to salient detail of any other literary endeavor. In other words, it’s hard work after all.

In their words: The recent essays by Susan Shapiro, Brooke Warner, and Katie Roiphe.

Immutability and the Endings of Stories

I’ve heard Peter Straub say the ending of one of his supernatural thrillers caused so much reader clamor to know what happened to one of the characters, he capitulated and added another chapter. Having just read his Mr. X, I think he must have meant that particular book, and the short final chapter that’s tacked on addresses but doesn’t answer the question his readers posed.

Two of my recent reads—Mr. X and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin—share the same mystery—who is the narrator? As we read along, who is telling us this story? In the end, Atwood answers the question, which the reader has perhaps suspected, but Straub raises it in that brief final chapter, calling into question everything that has gone before. If such a fundamental and seemingly straightforward narrative issue can be uncertain, how many of our other assumptions about “what’s going on” in a book are up for grabs?

It’s a testament to the writer’s ability to make us care about a story’s characters that sometimes we wrestle with these assumptions long after the last page, the last scene. No matter how many times I’ve seen West Side Story, I still hope unreasonably that Chino won’t appear with his gun. Reading Anna Karenina provokes the same reaction. Or Hamlet. But it is not to be. (One question resolved, anyway.)

At the last moment, Charles Dickens changed the ending of Great Expectations, one of his best-known and most-read novels, with a scene that offered a happier prospect, but one probably less true to everything that went before. He made the change on the advice of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—a popular 19th c. author, best-known today, alas, for opening his novel Paul Clifford with “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the eponymous annual contest “to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

What story’s ending would you change, if you could? What else would have to change to make your ending possible? And do you soon find yourself in a hopeless tangle of unintended consequences like poor Jake Epping trying to change events in Stephen King’s 11/22/63?