In the Authentic Writing workshops we always remind people and ourselves to “stick to the writing” when responding to something someone has just written. When hearing a personal story written candidly, spontaneously, with no attempts at camouflage, it can be very easy to respond with something along the lines of “oh, you poor dear,” or “how brave you were.”
No writer wants to hear that. That’s not why we write. Comments like that do not support the writing. They detract from it. They counteract it in the disguise of empathy.
It’s a hard line to define sometimes, but a real danger zone when it comes to writing and reading memoir.
I just this morning finished re-reading Ingrid’s Betancourt’s outstanding memoir, Even Silence Has An End. I’m not the crying type, but I had tears in my eyes in the closing pages. This is eloquent writing. Yes, I loved the adventure of the story and the rainforest environment, but it is Betancourt’s obvious integrity-filled effort to write down her inner experiences, self-examinations and observations of those tortuous years, and how carefully she describes those moments when freedom finally arrives that make this book stand high above the sea of standard memoir.
The writing is so intelligent and vulnerable. You can tell she is not seeking more than to tell her truth and she’s smart and capable and can do it artfully in words.
After turning the last page and taking a moment, I went to see what the reviewers had said. I started to read one that sounded in tune with my own sentiments. The reviewer wrote several paragraphs about how moving the book was etc., and then the reviewer’s voice changed direction, criticizing Betancourt for making money on the book and for charging high fees to speak, telling us that no one in Colombia can stand her.
What has that got to do with anything?
I am not at all convinced that Ingrid and I would fall in love should we ever sit down for a cup of tea together. I can imagine she might be very hard to get close to. She’s a tough cookie and she doesn’t take shit from anyone. (I’d like to see her and this reviewer in the ring together -- ha! I know where I’d put my money.)
But that has nothing to do with the masterful work Ingrid has done creating this memoir.
So, yes, I loathe it when people think they are reviewing a memoir and really what they are reviewing are the decisions made in the narrative, the life choices willingly exposed.
Recently I heard Aaron Sorkin (the creator of West Wing and Newsroom) say that he doesn’t think anyone’s life could survive public scrutiny. I love that. I agree.
I guess that’s why many people are afraid to write probing memoir. They know the piranhas are out there. Piranhas don’t scare me though. And they certainly do not scare Ingrid Betancourt. That’s one reason why her book is so good.