New Mission Statement for Memoir

Some months back I read this bit in a New Yorker profile of Wolfgang Tillmans:

Tillmans seeks out the experience of displacement. In 1990, he enrolled at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art & Design, on the southern coast of England. He described the pedagogic style there as “psychoanalytic.” His tutor Tony Maestri was less interested in looking at the students’ work than in forcing them to ask themselves why they wanted to take pictures. “To express myself” was not an acceptable answer.


Maestri “was really asking, Why on earth do you think the world needs more pictures?,” Tillmans said. “Don’t say, ‘What is successful and I want to be like that,’ because it’s very unlikely that you can get to that point from behind. You have to ask yourself, ‘What is not there? How do I not feel represented in what is being exhibited?’ ” 

I wanted to get my students to ask themselves a similar question, or I think more specifically I wanted to get them believing in the truth of that answer. How do I not feel represented in what is being written? Had I been encouraged to ask myself that question in grad school, rather than taking published books as models of not just how to write but what to write about, I’d’ve maybe saved some time.

As a teacher, I’ve learned not to ask students a question I already have the answer to. Which in my lead-up to the class where we’d have this discussion I saw myself preparing to do. Why do you want to write? NO. WRONG. IT’S TO TELL THE STORIES ONLY YOU CAN TELL. NEXT! Instead, I asked students to think about how they’d finish the following sentences:

  • I want to write a book that _____
  • I don’t want to write a book that _____

The idea was to think about their future books as art objects, or maybe as chemical reactions on the brains of their readers. I wasn’t looking for the content of these books (I want to write a book that tells the story of etc.) but rather the image they had for their books. Or, contrariwise, an image or form of a book they were working against.

It was a new exercise. I put them in the vulnerable position of sitting in chairs in an oval, like in an AA meeting, rather than having tables like forts to sit behind. I imagined they’d ask me to answer, and so I prepared answers.

I want to write a book that is serious about sex without being humorless or taking itself too seriously.

I don’t want to write a book that tells to others a story I’ve been telling myself.

This last was news to me when I came up with it. I hadn’t had that thought before, but it rang like an alarm. Or maybe the bell on a church. A clarity of purpose. Why I’d dismissed memoir—at least as a form I could write in—for so long was that I saw it as this: retelling a story from one’s past. This despite all I’d been teaching about memoir’s purpose.

My workshop syllabus this term as two epigraphs:

We all craft a story we can live with. The one that makes ourselves easier to live with. This is not the one worth writing. To write your story, you must face a truer version of it. You must look at the parts that hurt, that do not flatter or comfort you. That do not spare you the trouble of knowing what made you, and what into.

Melissa Febos

The exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion … in letting the language of alterity unsettle the sententiousness of the sovereignty of selfhood and nationhood.

Homi K. Babha

Both these writers are talking about how much of the art of writing is found in the transformation—of the subject, the material, the self—that occurs during the process of writing and revising. Every book that comes out exactly the way it seemed going into writing it is a failed book, evidence of a process deflated, like a souffle that never rises.

Vivian Gornick talks about this as testimony. If you simply tell everyone what happened to you, that’s testimony. Memoir asks for a certain ongoing analysis, or rethinking about what happened. Thinking “against the grain of inheritance and illusion,” as Babha says, until you find the new language you need.

Continuing to mull over my “I don’t want to write a book that” sentence, I’ve come up with a new, or at least newly worded, idea of the work I’m trying to do these days. I don’t want to write, “This happened,” but rather, “That this happened tells me something the writing of this book is meant to simultaneously discover and disclose.”

There’s nothing wrong with testimony. If your story has never been heard before, or is apt to be disbelieved, testimony is powerful. It’s news. But these days I’m not writing the news. It’s like a recent joke I tweeted about wanting to petition AWP to change the name of our genre to nonjournalism. But that’s a post for a different time.

My Year of Queer Reading: Tillie Walden’s Spinning

A graphic memoir about a young girl in the world of mid-level competitive figure skating, who comes out as queer and comes to realize she has to leave skating behind. What’s beautiful about it are Walden’s colors and her use of rhythm and pacing, how she moves from small and tight panels to wider and more expansive ones. Examples are hard to quote, so to speak, but here’s a couple of JPGs I could find.

It’s just that deep violet color throughout, unless there’s light in the scene, and contrasting light: the sharp angles of early morning sunrises, or the glow of litup windows in a dark evening, car headlights at dusk. When that yellow appears on the page it’s like a trumpet or melodic refrain you’ve been waiting for.

The matter-of-factness about her queerness and coming out to family and friends was a smart touch, because this is a story hanging its narrative on other ongoing conflicts. And as with all coming-out narratives I felt that same pang of envy and self-loathing. To have even known I was gay at Walden’s age….

Much less had the guts to tell others.

I was amazed by the insight into the power and purpose of memoir from an artist just 20 years old at the book’s publication. Here she is in her author’s note:

I think for some people the purpose of a memoir is to really display the facts, to share the story exactly as it happened. And while I worked to make sure this story was as honest as possible, that was never the point for me. This book was never about sharing memories; it was about sharing a feeling. I don’t care what year that competition was or what dress I was actually wearing; I care about how it felt to be there, how it felt to win. And that’s why I avoided all memorabilia. It seemed like driving to the rink to take a look or finding the pictures from my childhood iPhone would tell a different story, an external story. I wanted every moment in this book to come from my own head, with all its flaws and inconsistencies.

I like this idea of how researching the facts/memorabilia of one’s life can push a story to the exterior, rather than keeping it true to feeling, which is to say true to emotion, intellect, and art.