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Friday, February 16, 2007

Contemplating the Memoir

Do you have to write about your family?

It's a question I've been thinking about since 1996, when I went to the first Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference at Goucher College. I headed to the weeklong event wanting to explore the genre and thinking about writing essays on how weird and hard motherhood is. (I have since decided that every writer who becomes a mother wants to earn money by writing such essays; the ones who quit major publications to stay home with their kids are the ones who publish these stories . . . in the publications they used to work for. But I digress.)

One of the conference faculty was Darcy Frey, a New York Times Magazine contributing editor who had written The Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams. He did a reading of a work-in-progress, a memoir about his father.

After the reading, several students stood around talking with Darcy. One was the weird writer. At every conference, you (or maybe it's just me) find at least one--someone who is peculiar and irritating. This woman liked to wear flamenco skirts, wore her hair in cascades of dyed-black curls, and picked her teacher by looking at the faculty's pictures.

The weird writer said she believed everyone had to write a memoir. She argued that it was necessary therapy. I disagreed. As she talked, she edged between Darcy and the rest of us. I have no idea what her deal was--but the point is, to have such a character evincing the opinion that you have to write about your family, well, it certainly made me dig in against it.

The problem is, my family is very rich pickings, story-wise. Examples: one sister has been married seven times. I was the guardian of my youngest brother and, at a different time, my youngest sister. When I'm feeling caustic, I think, Hey, they ought to be good for something in my life. On the other hand, it's hard to go there emotionally. I'd probably need to ask my siblings about things that I ignored. Do I want to do that? No.

I keep thinking about it, though. Maybe a better answer is, Not yet.


Anonymous Lisa said...

Love this question, and the opportunity to say hello.

My 2 cents: writing as therapy is for exploratory writing groups. Journaling. That said, what we stumble upon in that context could be the seed for finding what's universal from the personal.

Recently I took a piece I wrote, a personal narrative and changed it to third person, and suddenly the story came alive. I then put it back into the first person, and at last I feel I have a submittable piece. (I think I might blog about this process.)

So, I wonder if you could write about your sister and her seven marriages in third person first...?

More than 2 cents, eh?

12:07 PM  

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