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.