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More (and more) on Memoir

February 22, 2011

Every so often a case against memoir makes headlines, and memoirists, memoir readers, memoir publishers, memoir editors, and students of the memoir craft respond. I never consider it a tired old debate, even though some of the same arguments come up again and again. Really, what debates are more old and tired than those surrounding the basic human condition, the balance between nature and nurture, the roles of faith and science? We still debate, for good reason.

Liz Stephens of Brevity responds to Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times here and, I think, makes a really good point. She asks, “What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.”

First of all, I had to look up the word “fecund,” and learned that it means “productive” or “profuse.”

More importantly, I remembered a conversation that I had with my husband and our friends M&C during a very pleasant weekend in the Berkshires last summer. In describing why I feel so passionate about narrative nonfiction in general, and memoir in particular, I drew from my surroundings. Since that back deck in the Berkshires, unlike Midtown Manhattan, offered easy viewing of the clear night sky (of the fecund Milky Way?), I likened personal narratives to an invisible wave of stars that travels over our heads at all times, kind of like a gulf stream or an atmospheric layer. At any moment we can reach up, grab one, find out where it came from and what it means to its owner and to us, decide how we feel about it, then send it back up into the wave. And at any moment, we can add to it ourselves, sending our personal narrative signals up into the air, thinking someone, somewhere, might grab it and take it in.

Quite literally starry-eyed, I was not sure how well I made my point, that memoirs contribute to the record of our present moment just the way they always have. Stephens, however, says it so much better than I did. We are having a conversation with each other through writing.

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