Zinsser on Friday

The Right to Write

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By William Zinsser

February 18, 2011


 

Because I’ve long taught a course in memoir writing and have frequently written about that form, I often hear from people who want to be sure I didn’t miss still another article expressing horror that so many bad memoirs keep being published. The latest object of their wrath is a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review by Neil Genzlinger, a staff editor.

His piece doesn’t say anything new; the same article has been repeatedly written since the memoir craze erupted 15 years ago. That was one thing that annoyed my callers. But what angered them was the writer’s pious tone. Genzlinger’s essay is sky-high on the smugness meter. He says, “Sorry to be so harsh” (which I doubt), “but this flood just has to be stopped. We don’t have that many trees left.” Literary criticism meets forestry.

In his review Genzlinger trashes three new memoirs, which, for him, typify a body of work by “people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. . . . That’s what happens when immature people write memoirs. . . . Nobody wants to relive your misery.” His message is: Don’t even think of writing your stupid memoir.

Sorry to be so harsh, but I don’t like people telling other people they shouldn’t write about their life. All of us earn that right by being born; one of the deepest human impulses is to leave a record of what we did and what we thought and felt on our journey. The issue here is not whether so many bad memoirs should be written. It’s whether they should be published–let’s put the blame where it belongs–and whether, once published, they should be reviewed. The Times can use its space more helpfully than by allowing a critic to hyperventilate on an exhausted subject. We don’t have that many trees left.

Memoirs first got a bad name in the mid-1990s. Until that time authors adhered to an agreed-upon code of modesty, drawing a veil over their most shameful acts and feelings. Then talk shows were born and shame went out the window. Overnight, no recollected event was too squalid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out, for the titillation of the masses, on television and in magazines and books. Memoir became the new therapy. Everybody and his brother wallowed in their struggle with alcohol, drug addiction, recovery, abuse, illness, aging parents, troubled children, codependency, and other newly fashionable syndromes, meanwhile bashing their parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and everyone else who ever dared to misunderstand them. It was a new literature of victimhood.

But nobody remembered those books for more than 10 minutes; readers won’t put up with whining. The memoirs that endure from that period are the ones that look back with love and forgiveness. Writers like Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club), Tobias Wolff (This Boy’s Life), Pete Hamill (A Drinking Life), and Russell Baker (Growing Up) are as hard on their young selves as they are on their elders, elevating the pain of the past by arriving at a larger truth about the brokenness of families. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people, and we have survived to tell the story and get on with our lives.

There are many good reasons for writing your memoir that have nothing to do with being published. One is to leave your children and grandchildren a record of who you were and what heritage they were born into. Please get started on that; time tends to surprise us by running out. One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.”

Another reason is to paint a portrait of the town or community, now considerably changed, where you grew up. Somewhere on the shelves of every American small-town library and historical society is a makeshift volume, often written by a retired schoolteacher, that resuscitates a bygone way of life. This is a priceless gift to social historians–crucial information that isn’t available anywhere else.

Writing is also a potent search mechanism, often as helpful as psychoanalysis and a lot cheaper. When you start on your memoir you’ll find your subconscious mind delivering your past to you, recalling people and events you have entirely forgotten. That voyage of rediscovery is a pleasure in itself.

Finally, writing is a sanity-saving companion for people in times of grief, loss, illness, and other accidents of fate. Just getting down on paper those grim details–still another bout of surgery, still another befogged moment with a husband or wife lost to Alzheimer’s–will validate your ordeal and make you feel less alone.

Most of those memoirs shouldn’t be published. They are too raw and ragged, too self-absorbed and poorly written, seldom telling us anything we don’t already know. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write them. Don’t worry about the trees.

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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