Thursday, December 17, 2015

Some thoughts on memoir and the elephant in the room

I once read an essay that was ostensibly about grief, but as I read it I suspected that what the author had really done, via several kinds of self-destructive behavior, was to avoid grieving. For me, this essay--which came highly recommended--missed the mark, because ultimately I didn't think it was about what the author thought it was about. We didn't have that meeting of the minds that is usually such a satisfying part of reading, especially reading memoirs and personal essays. (And I want to be clear that my issue here is not how the author chose to respond to the grief-inducing incident: her life is her life, and I'm not particularly interested in approving or disapproving of her actions. My problem was that the writing didn't lead me to the insights that she meant to spark, but took me in a different direction, which was suggested by the evidence but unexplored on the page.)

Similarly, I'm almost finished reading a memoir in which alcohol hijacks the main thread of the story. The author is trying to tell me one story, to share one set of insights about his life, and yet I'm being distracted by the huge role that drunkenness plays in the events. And it's frustrating that, for all the soul-searching and life-interpreting the author does, he only grazes the surface of the alcohol topic. In this book, drinking is like a Chekhovian gun that is never fired: present throughout, but never examined.

I don't mean that, in this case, the author must run to an AA meeting and tell us all about it. I mean that since drinking plays such a huge part in his story, it should be dissected with the same care as the memoir's other main threads--no matter what he concludes about it, or even if he concludes he's not ready to conclude anything yet. That territory should be explored.

One of the difficulties of the memoir and the personal essay is that we don't always see ourselves the way others see us; we're not always ready to face or acknowledge the elephant in the room. I can empathize with these writers as people, but as a reader engaging with their work, I want more.

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