Reading memoirs by people I know.

I have already mentioned that I like to read the published works of people who are critiquing my writing, mainly because through seeing their practice in action, I can begin to understand what they are asking me to do with my practice. In my undergrad past, this meant reading Zen texts and screenwriting how-to guides. But this year I’ve begun reading memoirs written by my supervisor and my nonfiction tutor, and I’ve come to find that this experience differs quite a bit from reading an academic’s scholarly work.

Yesterday I finished reading David Carlin’s memoir, Our Father Who Wasn’t There. David is both detective and fatherless son, as he tries to uncover the mystery of war veteran Brian’s suicide back in 1964. Creation, reflection and the unknown entangle on every page, and David’s voice is rhythmic, true. But is David the writer also David, the first person on the page? ‘I am here but I am not here.’ is the first sentence. I am interested in this notion of identity in nonfiction, and the fact that the David in the book I just returned to the library is a person I know to be walking, talking and breathing beyond the last page… well, I want to talk more whether or not those are in fact two different Davids.

I had a more visceral  (and childish) response to reading Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue, which is published as a part-memoir part-fiction story of Francesca’s relationship with her mother, and in particular her mother’s campaign to burn the un-Christian books on the Queensland school English curriculum in the 70s. The intimacy of Francesca’s story took me by surprise: I became one of the siblings of the Solider household, preparing the beef tongue, and swimming in the backyard pool after church. However, I was coming to the end of the memoir when RMIT hosted the 2012 NonFictioNow Conference during which the “real” Francesca and her sister Hephzibah presented an art exhibition. By the time I finished the last page I felt quite detached and frustrated — I had spent three days at a conference with the adult versions of these “characters”, and thus I could no longer reach back to the children I’d been reading about.

I think the construction versus exposure of the self in writing has already been discussed at length by various theorists. I think my understanding of this concept has changed since reading memoirs by people I know. Has anyone else reacted in a similar way? Does our understanding of the first person in a memoir change if we know the writer? Should it matter?

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2 thoughts on “Reading memoirs by people I know.

  1. It’s hard to see how knowing the writer personally could do anything but color how you see their writings. I find just reverse of that to be true in the writing I do of my days of caregiving to my mother – I write about her and worry about how I’m presenting her to family. So I’m torn – am I really writing freely if I must censor what I feel and see? Does that mean I have to wait until she’s dead to tell the story? Possibly, but it does make me aware of how readers will perceive the work and in your case, knowing the memoirist may give you inside knowledge of how to read between the lines of the memoir.

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