Monday, September 7, 2009

Ice Breaker

So many people use the word memoir, especially these days, and I wish there was another word for what I mean when I say memoir. I am determined to find a new word and am sure that I will, but it may take a long time.

I say I’m a writer and people ask, what do you write, and I say memoir, and then they think I’ve written a memoir and that's it. Why would anyone write more than one memoir, right? Or they think that I want to write a memoir because I’ve done something interesting like climbed Mt. Everest, or lived with a smart animal.

In the same vein, I hate it when, in response to hearing that someone has done something unusual, people say, "Now he should write a memoir!" As if that's what memoir were about. As if a good memoir is about something interesting that someone has done. That's a mistake that's easy to make: writing memoir that assumes what has happened in a person's life is more interesting than the person themselves. It's as wrong as someone saying, "Why should I write memoir? Who'd be interested in what I've done?"

I was walking with a friend a few days ago, someone I like a lot. He had just finished his manuscript about a very intense period of his life with a dying parent. “But who needs another book about a dying parent?” he laughed, even though I knew this was one of the saddest, darkest, most definitive times of his life.

“I don’t read a memoir for what it’s about,” I answered. “I read a memoir for what it tells me about the writer.”

Every memoir – every good one – is a self-portrait, and the more blatant and honest it is the better.

Yeah, but what about the quality of the writing, I hear my critical friends asking. It’s not enough to be blatant and honest. Actually, it is.

There are other memoirs that claim to be blatant and honest just because they spatter blood and guts all over the page. I'm not talking about that, though it works sometimes. I have found from writing that honesty is a pretty slithery thing. It is subtle. You have to really find ways to look at yourself, your past, where and what you came from to really start to draw a self-portrait that has any meaning. This is much scarier than revealing the simple fact that your father fucked you, which is scary enough.

My favorite memoir I’ve found this year? When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh. We have invited him to present at the Woodstock Memoir Festival this year and we are thrilled that he has said yes.


  1. Thanks for the posting Marta. You pose an interesting angle on the term memoir. It's more about the author than the event. Therefore, how many memoirs can a person post before they are seen as schizophrenic? How many self-portraits can they write? I would imagine many but one could argue that each memoir is merely a chapter of the whole. I just looked up memoir and it is defined as "a written account of events one has lived through." I'm looking forward to more of your postings. Ken Schweitzer

  2. I think we're (not sure who I include in the we, but anyone who is interested) are creating a new genre, and the word memoir doesn't do it justice. Yes, what I'm talking about is about the writer, not so much the events -- and I agree that any piece of memoir -- even it's book-length -- can only hope to capture a slice of something as complex as a person. And yet if it manages to capture an accurate slice, man, that's beautiful art.

  3. Dear Marta,
    This might be the most inspirational story, I need to start my motor. It hit the target with me, This is getting printed and taped to my fridge, honest, the real goods..

  4. So Carol (that's me) is wondering... "is this going to be a new book of Marta's composed simliar as The Guru Looked Good? Written first as blog and then transformed onto bounded pages?"

    Regardless, I have another blog to add to my roll! :-)

    My eyes are moist, my cheeks dampened, my heart validated.

    I hope as I continue on this path a self- portrait emerges; sometimes it's foggy. Yet as I put pen to paper and don't try to make it "right," an essence is there. Some details fill in, others are just beyond reach...for now.

    I'm grateful beyond words to have found the folks I have in this hall of memoir, hall of stories, hall of living lives. As Elton John sings, "...I thank the Lord that there's people out there like you. ....I thank the Lord for the people I have found...."

    In hope and gratitude,

    PS: I scribbled some words in June, endeavoring to relay a snippet of this new world I've found among 'memoir.' Then again, maybe it's not new for me; I just thought it selfish or prideful or amateurish...thought I needed to be fixed or needed an official piece of paper stating I'm trained. Ha! Paper-trained. hehe Anyhoo, hope it's o.k. I share the link that contains my scribbling: