On not publishing memoirs.

Today I read this excerpt from Emily DePrang on her decision not to publish a memoir she’d written, even after being offered a contract. I found it here on the Brevity blog.

What stopped me was that a memoir’s quality correlates to its honesty, and my book deal would be built on a kind of lie. I would only be pretending to be at peace with my past and ready to share its lessons with the world. I’d only be acting like I thought it was okay to dish my ex’s dirt. I’d seem brave, but it would be kamikaze courage, not an earned, owned courage, not one that endures. It occurred to me that writing a memoir should be like posing nude in front of an art class for three hours, not like flashing a camera after a few tequila shots.

Here‘s another paper about not writing a memoir about someone intimate to the writer. Willa McDonald concludes that there are decisions to be made — risks to be considered. Where do responsibilities lie?

In my own work, I wonder where my responsibilities lie?

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Me, but not me.

For Semester Two I’ve begun using this blog as more of a research diary; a place to talk about how I’m feeling about research as well as the research itself. I’m feeling positive this week — I wrote 1200 words a day in the last two days, 1000 of which are somewhat useful. I’ve been writing about the process of writing and publishing ‘A Girl called Fifteen.’, and decisions I made while editing the material. The questions I am exploring include:

‘ Publishing writing about living people has implications; I acknowledge the subjectivity of my writing, but will they?’ 

‘Regardless of their truthfulness, what makes these events and these private histories my stories to tell?’ 

‘As a child I was obsessive about dates of when things happened, but over the years this need has diminished and I remember that time simultaneously as a series of flashbacks and as a dreamy flow of walks to school, leftovers and flights to my bedroom. How could this sporadic, non-linear childhood be written into story?’

I’ve been reading Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being and Marina Warner’s introduction to Moments of Truth (edited by Lorna Sage). The two ideas that really resonate with me are:

1. Woolf’s theories about ‘non-being’ — the ‘silent and invisible’ parts of one’s own experience, which one forgets because they are parts of a routine we have learned. 

2. ‘new beings made of words’ (Marina Warner) I like this phrase: new beings made of words. Each writer in the collection Moments of Truth doesn’t simply tell their story, but finds her story in the writing. Her self on the page grows in words rather than in blood and muscle and bone. In the same way, my character Fifteen became a ‘new being made of words’. This is me, but this is not me. 

Sharpening the question of ethics.

I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream. — Virginia Wolff

Back on track: today has been a day of productivity — I’ve rewritten my research question, received feedback for my memoir-ette (yep, it’s a thing) and begun planning my final piece and exegesis.

Last night I dreamt my supervisor, Francesca, led me into a huge crowd and announced to everyone that the 7000 words I’d sent her were rubbish, and that I needed to start over. She’d crossed out every word with red so no one else could read them. Needless to say, that was close to the worst outcome so after waking up this morning I was ready to face anything today. I had been unsure of my writing — writing about my experiences and writing about the writing of these had led me to question my own integrity and my decisions to explore this dangerous territory. Why did I want to subject myself to this? Why did I want to consider things I remember from a long time ago? Why hadn’t I moved on yet? What did this whole project say about me?

Fortunately I was met with a more positive response — Francesca reported that most of the work was really strong and that she could see the questions I was thinking through and exploring. I’ve now decided that I will publish pieces of my memoir online, as the question of ethics — and especially the ethics of publishing material about others — is something that continues to arise in my research. For example, ethical considerations lead me to filter what I’ve written in these blog posts.

I will be publishing pieces of this memoir in an online space over the coming weeks, and so they will be available for anyone to read. This publication process will form part of my research about the ethics of nonfiction writing.

The point I want to stress to those new to the memoir genre is that these pieces are told from my experience and recollections of events, and will always be slanted. They will be partial truths. I will change names where I feel this is needed, but I want to tell you that this is a story made of memories, not of facts. I have constructed these pieces, and I want to lead you through this process of construction. I want you to look closely for the fuzzy edges, notice the absences, question the veracity of my stories. I am exploring the limitations of telling these stories, the complexities of telling stories that don’t belong just to me.

 

 

 

Frustration, reading, discovery.

Spent three hours in the Honours lab today, preparing my ethics proposal for the project component of my research this year. As my nonfiction project will be a work formed predominantly from interviews, I am required to submit this proposal to a committee of strangers who will decide if my project is ‘worth the risk’. This process takes at least two weeks, so my intention was to have it sent off by the end of the weekend.

So yes, I spent three hours completing that proposal, saved it to a USB and then promptly left that USB in the back of the computer.

In other news, the expanse of research itself is beginning to unnerve me. Reading five essays a week, writing profusely, attending a symposium in the holidays, applying for conferences that are months away, submitting to publications, writing this blog… I’m carrying a wad of printed papers around in my backpack just in case I’m presented with any free time. Tomorrow Numberworks’nWords is flying me to Sydney at 6.30am to consult with our Mosman centre, and all I’m thinking about is how many pages I can read on the plane. Will I be awake enough to write at that time of the morning? Will the taxi driver be happy for me to spread my work across his backseat? Deeeep breath.

What I am reading (one of my five for this week) is a research paper by Luanne Aileen Armstrong from the University of British Columbia. Well, let’s say I’m reading a part of the research paper (seeing as it’s over 300 pages long). The Ecology of Identity: Memoir and the Construction of Narrative. Not a wellknown paper, but I’ve found Armstrong explores ideas relevant to my project. She declares writing a memoir to be an act of discovery rather than of memory — that it may be a work about you but you still won’t know what it’s ‘truly about until it’s done’. She asks if memories can in fact be replaced by memoirs. She also asks, ‘What connection does the writer’s emotional stance towards her material have with the ethics of telling it?’

Armstrong quotes William Kittredge: ‘Our character is formed by the stories we learn to live in.’ And Richard Hoffman: ‘Memoir must be about the myriad ways the past and present conjugate to produce the future.’

Armstrong’s research is helpful to me, because she has begun to raise some of the questions I myself have been wondering about, but couldn’t quite articulate. What are the ethics of writing “truthfully” about people I know? How do I put a memory into words, if I can only remember a moment of it, and not a place or a time?

I spent some time on a small writing exercise to try to understand Armstrong’s point about discovery. I reflected on the time spent with my little sister in Argentina in 2011, and tried to develop a piece based on our interactions late at night when we were half-asleep, when she told me all the things that had happened to her in the last year. These conversations remained with me, but not as words — more as the moments that captured us, the city lights out the window. However, as I made myself write, our whispers began to form in my head, quiet so our mother wouldn’t hear us from the next room. My sister describing the Caesarean conducted on a neighbour’s cat, the furry pink worms being dropped into a pail of water before she could close her eyes. Myself, watching her pale one-year-older-than-last-time-I-saw-her face and wanting to snuggle closer, and not knowing how. These probably aren’t real memories. Or maybe they are now.