Friday, March 30, 2007

Memoir Week at Slate

It's memoir week at Slate. Check out the very interesting list of offerings. I particularly like the "Publish And then Flee: How to Tell Your Parents You're Writing About Them."

I don't generally like memoirs (too...Oprah-esque and pseudo-inspirational), but I like first-person journalism. I like Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff, Jack Hitt, and Lawrence Weschler (can you tell I'm a This American Life fan?). I like the better-than-reality exaggerations of David Sedaris. I like using the personal pronoun.

I can't explain my inconsistent dislike of the typical memoir (I especially avoid political memoirs, those by former princesses, and anything by a celebrity with the exception of Johnny Cash and Alan Alda) and my love of first-person writing. I guess I don't like people talking about themselves unless it serves some kind of broader purpose: growing up gay in North Carolina (Sedaris); actively being an American citizen (Vowell); or remarking on American excess (Rakoff). I use the personal pronoun all the time here, but I really do try to avoid writing about myself in a useless way. Well, you can make your judgments.

It's an interesting genre, the memoir. It is at once excruciatingly intimate, but also detached: you write about yourself and you send your words into the world to be claimed by others to attach personal relevance and meaning. In that way, it's no different from any work of fiction--but the memoir is supposed to be "real." It's supposed to say "this is what happened to me, and learn from my triumphs and failures." Or something like that.

What then, does a personal blog do? Memoirs are often written at the end of one's life or some serious trial, and is thus a product of deep reflection (and savvy packaging). Blogs are instantaneous reactions, often with very little thought put into them. Yet they have the same general tone and goal as the memoir. But should we trust blogs less or more? Because of the "real-time" aspect of blogs, there seems to be that instant-replay verisimilitude: these are my present feelings, and you can trust them because I haven't had time to change my mind or spin the story. But is that really the case?

I find that when I write, I start off with a very vague idea and meander, unfolding the narrative laconically. I used to pre-write posts in my head, or do drafts--but I found that too forced, except in the case of academic posting (which I can't do anymore, sadly, since I write in my own name). So I just start writing and see where it goes. Perhaps that's one difference between a memoir and a blog: a memoir reflects on that which has ended, a blog reacts to that which is present and forward-going.

So let's see where we go.