The Challenge of Memoir by guest blogger Jennifer Worick
I just saw Other Desert Cities and my jaw is still on the floor.
See, usually I research the play or film I’m going to see. I don’t mind a spoiler. But in the case of this remarkable play, I went in blind and came out with my eyes opened.
Why was I so affected? The story is about a fractured family who come together for the holidays. The Wyeths are old guard Palm Springs Republicans, the daughter a writer who left to pursue a writing career on the East Coast. She’s home for the first time in years, disconnected from her family and with a revealing memoir about to be published.
Disconnected from a family who hold wildly different beliefs? Check.
Writing a memoir that my family’s not exactly thrilled about? Yep.
Let’s not even talk about the alcoholic aunt. That’s just too eerie.
If you were sitting around me in the Falls Theatre, I hope you’ll forgive the “Holy crap!” audible.
I worry about a lot of stuff, so it’s not surprising that I worry about what my loved ones will think after writing about them (I worry about what they think when I’m not writing about them). I have been thoughtless in the past about oversharing and processing my thoughts and feelings through my writings. A man I was dating mistakenly thought I was referring to him in a column that was primarily about my grandfather, who had just passed away. In an article about my high-school reunion, I didn’t even change the names, thinking none of my classmates would see it. I was wrong.
I was wrong in many ways. See, my story isn’t just mine. My perspective and my voice are, certainly, but events, well, they usually involve other folks even if we remember things differently. And boy oh boy, Other Desert Cities is a contemporary Rashomon.
I’m writing a memoir, which wasn’t really music to my mom’s ears. Shit went down when I was growing up. I’m trying to capture it from my point of view, through my eyes. But I’m having a tough time. I can’t help fast-forwarding to family reactions when I spill secrets that might not be only mine to share. Many memoirists (Augusten Burroughs, for example) have left a wake of ill will and severed relationships behind them for the sake of a fantastic, compelling read. I sure as hell don’t want that. Mom told me to wait until she was dead (something that was echoed by Kevin Tighe in the play) before publishing the memoir. I’m not going to do that, either. One, I want her to live for a long, long time. Two, it feels dishonest. If I’m going to risk someone’s reputation post-mortem, I should be willing to do it while they’re alive and face the music, even if I don’t want to hear it.
I’m not exactly starting with a lot of good will banked with my family. We all get along but I often feel like we’re on different planets. In the past, I’ve been checked out with the relatives. Family gatherings are challenging, which is why I wrote Beyond the Family Tree so I and others could better connect with kin. It offers more than 1,000 questions to ask relatives to deepen your relationship without acrimony or judgment. I couldn’t help but think that the Wyeths could have used my book on Christmas Eve. Talking about high school crushes, the best gift you ever received or personal heroes would have provided lively conversation and insight. But it wouldn’t have made for compelling theater…
Do you think art takes precedence over family and relationships?
What’s your favorite memoir?
Do you have any advice for navigating family gatherings?
Jennifer Worick is the New York Times-bestselling author of more than 25 books, including Things I Want to Punch in the Face. For a complete list, check out http://www.amazon.com/jenniferworick. In addition, she is a blogger, publishing consultant, and public speaker. Her publishing talks and workshops with Kerry Colburn can be found at http://bizofbooks.com.
A list of memoirs
· A Sort of Life, Graham Greene
· American Junkie, Tom Hansen
· Are You My Mother, Alison Bechdel
· Cherry, Mary Karr
· Closing Time, Joe Queenan
· Cutting for Stone, Abraham Verghese
· Floor Sample, Julia Cameron
· Fun House, Alison Bechdel
· Garlic and Sapphires, Ruth Reichl
· Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless, Susan Jane Gilman
· Just Kids, Patti Smith
· Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard
· Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
· Lit, Mary Karr
· Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Anna Quindlen
· My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS, Abraham Verghese
· One Good Egg, Suzy Becker
· Out of Egypt, Andre Aciman
· Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, Bill Clegg
· River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, Peter Hessler
· Smashed, Koren Zailckas
· Split, Suzanne Finnamore
· Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper, Laurie and Art Pepper
· The Boy in the Moon, Ian Brown
· The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery, van de Wetering
· The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
· The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr
· The Man Who Quit Money, Mark Sundeen
· The Memory Palace, Mira Bartok
· The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
· The Year of Yes, Maria Dahvana Headley
· What Disturbs Our Blood, James FitzGerald
· Yes Chef, Marcus Samuelsson
Photo of Jennifer Worick from http://thingsiwanttopunchintheface.blogspot.com/