I, Memoir

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Welcome to the memoir factory. Same story told 5,000,000 different times.

When I sat down to read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson, I was pretty excited. My friend (and Not So Book Club Podcast guest) Alison, had recommended it to me and I tend to not take her suggestions lightly. 9 times out of 10, our tastes perfectly sync. The story of how we became friends even reflects that. (She approached me because I was wearing a “Hey Brother” Buster Bluth t-shirt. She was sporting a Mr. Banana Grabber tote bag. And if you don’t understand why that was important, perhaps this is the reason why you and I don’t share as strong a connection as me and Al.) Anyway, she swore by this book and said it made her laugh so much that she was exiled from her home and forced to read it (noisily) at her local Starbucks instead. But when I cracked open the book, I didn’t have quite the same reaction. I chuckled here and there at a few odd stories about the author’s taxidermy-obsessed father and her mother’s ingenious solutions for their poverty-stricken home, but aside from that, I felt slightly annoyed. I kept thinking “why is this important? Why tell me this story? What should I get out of this?” And these are questions that have plagued me about the memoir genre for years.

 

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My feelings expressed perfectly by Shania Twain.

It all started a few summers ago when I went on a celebrity memoir binge. I first read Russell Brands My Booky Wook and absolutely loved it. His writing style perfectly reflected his speaking style—chaotic, fast-paced, and saturated with enough beautiful vocabulary words that I had to keep my Merriam-Webster handy at all times. Next was Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I had always been a fan of Tina and liked to pretend that if my life were to ever be made into a movie, it’d be Tina who would play me despite our age difference. Needless to say, I was almost pre-programmed to enjoy this one as well. Then I read Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter, and although I enjoyed it, I started to see some similarities with these books. By Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me it was clear. I had read the same book 4 times. They all had loving parents. They all grew up middle class. They all went through awkward fazes (and included pictures to prove it). All (with the exception of Russell’s heroin and prostitution addiction) shared the same basic plot points, and by the end I was wondering what possessed me to read their books in the first place?

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See, I wasn’t lying. Each of their memoirs included at least one picture of them flaunting their childhood awkwardness. (Top left going clockwise – Russell Brand, Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman, and Mindy Kaling)

Perhaps it was voyeurism that made me pick up the books. These were books written by people I respected and watched on my television on daily basis. Perhaps, I thought, I just wanted a glimpse into their lives so maybe I could see how they reached such success, and maybe learn a thing or two so I could emulate that in my own life. But no. There wasn’t much of that. These memoirs were just mainly ugly duckling stories (i.e. I once was a loser at summer camp but now I’m a fantastically witty, albeit still nerdy-cool celebrity!)

And now a few years later, these stories make even less of an impact now that we live in an age where almost everything we do is posted on the Internet for others to see. With this new culture of oversharing, it has become so very clear—we all believe what we do is unique but in the grand scheme of things… most of the time it’s not. And as far as your typical memoir topics go, most of them have been beaten to death. As eloquently stated by New York Times writer Neil Genzlinger,

“Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”

Reading Genzlinger’s 2011 article (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Genzlinger-t.html?pagewanted=all) I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who have traveled the across America—many of whom want to write a book about their experience, and I cringe because I think of On the Road, or Into the Wild, or this year’s best seller Wild. We love sharing our experiences because 1. We believe they are unique and 2. Because it’s a less flashy way to tell the world you’ve done something you think is interesting,  but we fail to recognize that perhaps the experience is only truly unique or interesting to us and in the end, it comes off as self serving. Even in my own writing, I struggle to find the balance between “hoping to inspire others” and “hoping others will see me as fabulous.”

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Yes, Hannah. We all do.

So how can this genre be saved? How can I learn to love the memoir genre again? And for those of us who write, what is the best way for us to tell our stories so that they are in their most genuine/purest form?

I’m not sure if I have the answer for that. I feel the war of the memoir wage within me. The positive Nina loves the idea that writing can bring people together so that we all have a shared human experience. But the negative Nina despises writers who think they’re so important that even their ordinary and mundane lives deserve book deals.

So this week, I need your help. Since I can’t seem to find an answer on my own right now, I’d like to pose the question to you, my Not So Book Clubbers. What do you think about the genre of memoir, and what do you think should be done to improve it? Share your thoughts on the Facebook page (www.facebook.com/nsbcbc) or in the comments section below. I’d love to hear what you have to say on the subject.

– Nina Sclafani

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