the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Memoirs

There was a recent outcry amongst writers online in reaction to an article in the New York Times Book Review by Neil Genzlinger, which savaged the art of the memoir.

The piece started with fighting words —

“A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.  There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

Now, I’m not immune to a good memoir-writing joke.  It seems as if every other blogger I know has the dream of expanding their story of getting beaten up by Joey McCallister in third grade as a book proposal.  But, in reality, my views on the importance of memoirs is quite different than those of Mr. Genzlinger’s.

I love the personal.  And I think it is the personal that ends up being passed down from generation to generation.  It is the personal that touches us and has the most impact.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about how he uses social media.  He was trained as a journalist, and while not as extreme as Mr. Genzlinger, is not a fan of the incessant personal chatter on blogs and Twitter where women write about their “cats.”   In his eyes, the personal is junk food.  Discussion of news and politics is the real meal.

I disagree with him.   I follow a lot of “media” people on Twitter, and while I love their opinions on current events, I see THEM as the “fast food” — tasty at first, but with no lasting nutritional value.”

Consider the recent revolution in Egypt.  For several days, my Twitter stream was filled with tweets talking about the students and the activists.   It was a historic event.  But like most news stories, it played more like entertainment for us.  Once Mubarak resigned, we all moved on to talking about the Grammy Awards.

Have you noticed that every day there seems to be a new “trend” on Twitter.  I think, for many of us, myself included, we feel obligated to mention, or at least understand these trends, so as to seem as if we aren’t asleep at the wheel, or irrelevant in our media-obsessed society.

How many of you immediately Googled “Mumford and Sons” during the Grammy Awards, just so you didn’t feel like your pop musical history peaked with Duran Duran?

Most of these news and pop culture references are not very important.  It isn’t that the events aren’t important in themselves, but our mention of them is for our own purposes, not for the sake of history.  We are sending the message to the others that we are not stupid and went to college.  We are reminding the others that we have an opinion on what is going on in Egypt and who won the Grammy Awards, so you don’t have to worry about inviting us to a cocktail party and embarrassing you in front of your friends.  After we get that across, the topic is not relevant anymore, so the subject is quickly dropped.  Very few people are talking about the uprisings in Bahrain or Iran… or even Egypt anymore!   Of course, we WILL do that when it starts trending again.

Perhaps this post is not about social media, politics, or even writing.  Maybe it is about getting older, and memory.

The older you get, the more historic events and personalities you can remember, so you begin to notice the repetive nature of the news cycle.  Justin Bieber is the David Cassidy is the Bobby Darren of the previous generation.  Remember that Billy Joel song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” where he spits out one historic event after another, important events that are hardly remembered by the next generation.  Of course Watergate and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Monica Lewinsky were big events of that time, something we all talked about, but do we remember any of those conversations?  Can you remember any of the tweets with the #Egypt hashtag from last week?  Most of the tweets were re-tweets or recaps of Breaking News from TV.  We write about these events for the same personal reasons we write about our lunch — we want to put our stamp on the event, to say “we were there,” even if we are home sitting in our living rooms in Ohio.

While political tweets are deemed important, most are forgotten the next day.  Because it is just talk.  But I remember writing of a personal nature.  Because that was lived.  When I meet a blogger in person, I can quote her post about her mother dying, or when she lost a child.  Or the funny story when she finally cleaned the kitchen!  I relate to those stories.   Those moments are so universal, and so specific to the individual, that the imagery becomes the most lasting.  We can get more from reading “The Diary of Anne Frank” than a Pulitzer-Prize winning history of Nazi Germany.  This is how our brains work.

Perhaps this is why a critic like Neil Genzlinger seems so scared of personal memoirs.  He is a trained writer with a job talking about important “stuff.”   Maybe the memoir is considered too feminine, in a patriarchal world, where a person’s importance is tied to their impact on history.  What does a SAHM have to offer the world in a memoir?

Actually, a lot.

In the year 2211, the next generation is going to care more about how the typical person lived their daily life, and how it reflected on the times, than on anyone’s opinion of the long-forgotten news story of the day.

30 Comments

  1. Kyran

    I heard memoirist Patricia Hampl tell Diane Rheims that “memoir is the hero’s journey of our time.” I think that’s true.

    Lovely post, Neal. Thanks.

  2. laurenne

    Hear! Hear!
    I don’t really appreciate any story unless I know a bit of it is real. Reality is what we must hold onto in our world of video games and fake and social media ‘talkers.’
    I REALLY REALLY think you should send this to the NYT as a response.
    After you work on your proposal.

  3. Bon

    i don’t know if you’re right about 2211, Neil, but i hope so.

    i do think much of the critique of social media’s mundanity is actually, like you say, fear of the feminized. there’s resentment of that which has previously been caged in its tidy little domestic box breaking WIDE open and demanding attention. how unseemly. don’t we know what’s important? what’s important is what we’ve been conditioned to value.

    thank you, for valuing stories and that which is traditionally feminized, for standing on this side of the (false but still powerful) divide.

    • Neil

      Thank you, Bon. It is also a good method for picking up chicks! I UNDERSTAND the woman’s POV.

      • Bon

        ah, but women who identify as heterosexual are also conditioned to want men who DON’T stand on the side of the feminized. or at least, as more than friends. 😉

        i’ll send you all my Judith Butler books after i’m done with ’em.

        • Neil

          Aw, now you tell me. Luckily, my previous post about fashion advice was sexist enough in a heterosexual way to keep up appearances.

  4. Megan

    I completely agree. It’s said that God is in the details. The small things, the stuff of a live lived, are far more affecting than most news, no matter how important. We don’t live life on a grand scale; we live it in small moments, surrounded by friends and family. The revolution in Egypt will change the world, but our lives will continue on much as they usually do. We’ll love, lose, laugh and cry the same as we did two weeks ago.

    The personal resonates with us because it is us.

    • Neil

      God is in the details is one of my favorite expressions, because it is so true.

      • The Honourable Husband

        It’s from Flaubert. God is in a detail like Madame bovary pricking her finger and holding it in her mouth sensuously on chapter one, page one.

        The phorse is often attributed to architect Mies van der Rohe. Which is funny, since his buildings have no details at all.

  5. Megan

    Yes! Everyone’s story has value. It is how we communicate with each other on a daily basis, after all. It is what makes us human – our storytelling. The beauty of blogs and social media for me is that I get to hear so many of those stories. Are they all pieces of great literature? No, but that certainly doesn’t render them devoid of value. Who gets to decide when a life is remarkable anyway? I think it is often not who fired the shot, but whose child was woken in the night by the sound of the shot and what story that child’s mother told to make the world seem safe again.

  6. Trish

    And then we have “memoirs” from folks like Justin Bieber. Folks who offer us nothing actually “personal”, nothing like what you talk about Neil, but rather treat memoir-writing as a piece of the marketing package. Those memoirs are, in my mind, the true literary junk food.

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone who doesn’t fit into one of Mr. Genzlinger’s “categories’ penning a memoir; what matters is that the person has something to teach us, something to tell us, something that makes our lives – and the literary world – a better place. “Unremarkable” people do have something to offer us; if you don’t believe me, ask 100 people who their hero is. Nine times out of ten it will be someone you’ve never heard of, and yet someone who is remarkable in their eyes: Their mom, their dad, a beloved aunt, a high school teacher. I think that has been the biggest evolution in media in the past ten (or more) years; thanks to blogs and social networks like Twitter and Facebook, we’re discovering that there are remarkable people and stories all around us that we want to know more about.

    I think traditional media and traditional literature are still struggling to grasp that idea. For centuries, it really has been true that only those who could be considered “remarkable” in some major way would be given attention (and book contracts). More and more, though, traditional media is realizing that we are interested in the stories of people just like us…only maybe slightly different. I think the popularity of reality shows ties into that a little, as well as the revolution that is blogging.

    Mr. Genzlinger is entitled to his opinion, of course – and if, in his mind, memoirs by “unremarkable” people are less inherently important than those of the unremarkable masses, then so be it. But I think the vast majority of people would probably disagree.

  7. Dana

    I’ve always found personal stories more compelling that straight policy or politics. But I also love the people who can blend them all. I’m relatively new to Twitter and my absolute favorite follow so far has been @DonnaBrazile. She writes about everything: politics, wonkish policy, sports, food, love, friendship.

    • Neil

      Dana — But taking off from where Bon was taking this, as a feminist critique — I did always wonder, even back in grade school, why our history classes were always so much, lists of “great men.” We learned a lot of dates and about battles and treaties, but very little about life during any of these historical periods. What did people eat? How old did people live until? How did people think? I gave the example of Anne Frank, not to lessen the importance of all the well-researched history books about the Holocaust, because it is essential that we detail the historic events that occurred. But as time passes, and soon, there won’t be anyone left alive from that period of history, it will be just as crucial to have these personal testimonies left behind. Of course, the life of a suburban mom in 2011 isn’t as dramatic as someone trapped in Eastern Europe during WW2, but that in itself is part of our history. What were people doing in America during this time of relative peace and prosperity? What were the subtle changes in lifestyle that makes this century different than the last? How is the internet changing our day to day lives? Think about it. In the future, people will be laughing at our stories as we try to figure out our way in the online world.

      “Those silly people were worried about putting photos of their kids on Facebook! How quaint. Can you believe how puritanical people were in 2011, especially now in 2211 when we all broadcast our sexual activities online, and even monetize it on Face-Google-Tube?!”

      We will be seen like those on the Pony Express. They will crack up when they see that footage of Katie Couric and Bryant Gumbel not knowing what the internet was about. We are laughing at it now. In a hundred years, that video will be like us looking at footage of Thomas Edison showing off his light bulb.

      • Dana

        I agree completely. And I should have said so in my original comment. I loved your perspective on this.
        Also, Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric trying to define the Internet… hilarious.

  8. Jack

    Tweet long and tweet loud. These stories that we blog about are what we make of them and nothing more. The importance lies in their value to us and those we hold dear.

  9. Heather

    The last sentence…monumental in its own right.

  10. The Honourable Husband

    The memoirs of people who have done someting “noteworthy” or who have has “extremely unusual experiences” are deathly dull. Especially when we ask what they did to achieve their notoriety.

    On the other hand, “being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment” is absolutely what the modern memoirist does. And what (really good) bloggers do.

    One difference is that the memoirist of the last century might have written a thinly-disguised autobiographical novel. But otherwise, the observational and narrative skill are the same. And generations raised onthe immediacy of filmed drama, and the powerful prose of the New Journalists, actually do it better than before.

    The New Journalists (Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and the like) are responsible for all this, you know. They inserted themselves into their stories and showed us the sparks that fly from a first-person narrator. They revolutionised prose, and raised the bar for made-up fiction. That’s why in 2011, memoir trumps fiction. And trumps third person reportage, too.

    I defy Genzlinger to read the following, and maintain his argument

    Heather Havrilesky Disaster Preparedness
    Nick Flynn Another Bullshit Night in Suck City
    Robert Goolrick The End of the World as We Know It

    Memoir, blogs and first-person stories paint a more vivid social history than mediated reportage or academic analysis. That’s why your Interview Experiment is so riveting.

    Which reminds me…when is the Interview Experiment for 2011? I get first dibs. You can interview The Honourable Husband. I hear he’s a hum-dinger.

  11. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    I too quickly tire of the Cause of the Moment: Haiti, Palestine, Wikileaks, Congo, Egypt, Iran etc. Everyone gets so caught up in supporting the Underdog du Jour. Meanwhile, there are people in their own families, communities, and circles who are also “underdogs.” They’ve lost jobs, they’re fighting cancer, they’re dealing with depression or a bad marriage or sick kids or job stress or death of a loved one or ALL of the above. The difference is that Anderson Cooper isn’t standing by to tell their story or muster support.

    And so while we get swept up in breaking news, there are broken people RIGHT IN FRONT OF US that we could actually help, in small ways or in big ways. A note. A care package, A phone call. A donation. A comment. An e-mail. A coffee date. An invitation. A listening ear. A ride. A bag of groceries. A homecooked meal. A sharing of talent. A shouldering of a burden.

    For most people, these small acts of kindness are a way to make a real difference in the world. The personal stories are the ones I most care about because I can participate in them. Yes, some people take their passion for global causes and turn them into activism, (I’m thinking of Jen Lemen and Stephanie Roberts at the moment), but most people don’t.

    For many, following the news and being in the know is really more of a hobby, maybe an escape that allows them to run away from problems closer to home, or a chance to enjoy the DRAMA of global news or experience a different reality. There’s nothing wrong with being engrossed and entertained by the news, but I agree history is being made every day by the people we know. I think personal history matters, and I appreciate the people who write it, blog it, Tweet it, and Facebook it.

  12. Jade

    I have an extraordinarily difficult time caring about other people’s opinions on current events. While I find myself equally bored by broads writing about their cats, I like the in-between, the personal story about growth and introspection and learning from one’s own experience. If the writing is appealing enough on a personal level (regardless of whether or not it’s considered “good”), I’ll even read about a broad and her cats. I don’t care if she went to college, or whether or not she can hold her own in an “intelligent” discussion at a cocktail party. That’s just folks showing off their comprehension of big words and confusing politics, but it doesn’t really tell you about them.

    Love the post, Neil, thanks for writing it!

  13. Rufus Dogg

    I was sitting in my home in Ohio. And I was there. Really, Englewood, Ohio 45322. 🙂

    Years ago when I was in college — well, decades, really — I read a book for an English Lit class called “The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England.” Strongly recommend. Since then, I’ve been fascinated with the commoner’s legacy, the ones that are created like footsteps on a sandy dune. The kind that compels men to stand on chairs and carve “Brooks was here” and “So was Red” in the beams of a halfway house or “Emily” into the wet concrete of a walkway three blocks from my house (we walk over it every day.. I wish I knew who Emily was.)

    • Neil

      Added that to my reading list.

  14. unmitigated me

    I am going to put on my professional cloak here and take a stand. I work at The Henry Ford, an institute whose collections are based on the idea that the most important history to know is the way everyday people lived their lives. There are so few examples of these memoir from prior to the nineteenth century, that nearly all of what we ‘know’ about people’s real lives is based on conjecture to a greater or lesser degree. As oral histories, these personal memoirs are invaluable, in the same way that John and Abigail Adams’ letters to each other are a window into their time. Really, though…paper? Probably not gonna make it 2211. If only there were some way for regular people to chronicle their lives in some more lasting way. Maybe someday we’ll come up with some electronic kind of journal…

    Until then Mr. Gunslinger can bite me. I say that as a professional.

  15. Maggie, dammit

    Thumbs up, Neil.

  16. claire

    Well said, Neil!

    I’ve long been a fan of memoirs/auto-biographies. Sure, first I started reading those of celebrities but I’ve read some by non-famous folk that were fascinating and informative. Reading Carol Burnett’s “This Time Together” right now and really getting a kick out of it. What makes the largest impression, however, is as you said that to which you can relate.

    Is it threatening to relate to stories of people who don’t conform to the money, power, and things definition of success? For some probably quite a lot.

  17. Danny

    I’m with you, Neil. Genzlinger is full of shit. I love memoirs–which isn’t to say there aren’t a ton of awful ones out there. But so many great ones, too. And while I’m not a huge Twitter fan, I’m getting sick of the cliche about how people are tweeting about the tuna fish sandwiches they just ate. I follow 118 people and I’ve never read a tweet about a freaking sandwich!

  18. teahouseblossom

    Just listening to this song makes me neurotic and anxious.

  19. Erika

    I was in the drugstore the other day and heard ‘we didnt start the fire’ and it was awesome.my kid was looking at me strangely as i sang along in the store. btw, im writing my second memoir.

  20. Anne

    I really liked Genzlinger’s article. While I’m not a fan of the whole memoir/autobiography genre, I have been noticing the recent saturation. Even so, I do enjoy a well-written account of somebody’s life no matter how unremarkable the events are. It’s just that I get the feeling a lot of these published memoirs think they’re bigger than they actually are.

    I’d take personal over political any day, but I do think these things are best left in blogs.

    • Neil

      Thanks, Anne. A post is only good when someone takes the opposite view. While I can clearly understand Genzlinger’s logic, why attack the poor memoir? Because people seem to like them? If you are really going to make the argument that the publishing industry is going down the wrong path, wouldn’t it better to talk about all the cat books, or even self-help books that should “remain on daytime TV.” I’m not sure why the every day memoir deserves to stay on blogs if people like them and want to buy them. It’s like saying Hollywood shouldn’t make Adam Sandler movies, but only films about British royalty. Now, I don’t personally think that the personal story is less important than a biography of a CEO. I also like comedies. But I’m not even sure why this is an issue, considering publishing is a business, and they publish what people want. And there are plenty of books of all types for everyone. To me, the fact that the memoir is being attacked, and not the cat book, tells me that Genzlinger is well aware that the personal is the biggest threat to old era of when only the stories of “Great Men” counted in the world.

  21. Alex@LateEnough

    I don’t enjoy memoirs much. I can enjoy them in essay form only — if humor is involved. But I don’t even like long blog post. Or tweets over 140 characters.

    I love the mundane made extraordinary. But I think there has to be something or someone interesting in the story. Or the story must be told in a new way. And eating oatmeal isn’t it. Unless eating oatmeal transports us back to grandma and her surviving something amazing. Or no one has ever told the story from the oatmeal’s pov

    To the aspect of the great male v mundane female. Of course that frustrate me. When it’s easier for men to be ‘great’ and more traditionally female work is still considered banal, it’s not a fair pov. And, as you said, reflects fear.

    I found it uncomfortable that people talk about what’s going on in other countries as boring. While I agree that people in the US either move on quickly or dont even notice it in the first place, I think that politics and great events are important — revolutions are more important than cats.

    This is a convoluted comment because I just woke up from napping with my daughter. In Egypt. Story on a bookshelf nearest you someday. Also, it’ll be in the fiction section.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial