If I Wasn’t Scared Before… Writing Memoir in Genzlinger’s Age

Neil Genzlinger has dropped the bomb. In a supposed review of four memoirs, he goes off on what’s really eating him: the fact that people are writing memoirs at all:

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’ve always ascribed to the belief that every life was remarkable. There is no such thing as an “unremarkable life.” The human condition is remarkable, for crying out loud. There is mystery and wonder everywhere.

That’s not to say that there isn’t some cogent advice in Mr. Genzlinger’s harsh and just-plain-rude write-up in the Times Sunday Book Review. Here’s the good stuff separated from the emotional vomiting that Genzlinger himself is quite guilty of. If you can get past the snarky tone, you can see that there’s some decent advice in there. Let’s break it down:

  • Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy.

This, I think, is a question with which all serious memoirists struggle (or should): is this really interesting? It’s hard to know when we’re writing about topics that can’t help but be personal if there’s something in there that will interest, enlighten, entertain or somehow impact a reader. This is precisely why I feel it’s important that we have readers for our work that are willing to be honest and brutal in their feedback. Not the kind of brutal that reads along the lines of, “this sucks, you suck,” but that which goes like this, “I’m not feeling this section; I don’t know why this is here; This is not particularly interesting nor does it move the narrative along.”

  • No one wants to relive your misery.

While I believe that good writing does, in fact, make the reader relive the experience (and should!), I agree that it can’t be just misery. It’s important to give readers breathing space, to make them laugh as well as cry, to make them angry and outraged and happy. Basically, it’s important to make readers feel a full range of emotion. Otherwise, we’re just dumping, emotionally vomiting, as it were, on our readers. And that’s just not cool.

  • That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.

And here’s perhaps the most perceptive thing Mr. Genzliner has to say. All the joy and pain mean nothing without perspective and perceptiveness. The writer and the reader need both. Otherwise, we’re just like eyewitnesses to a crime giving a police report – just the facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. We need perspective on a situation, we need time and space before writing about it.

  • If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with this point, though I do see merit in the suggestion. I think, at the very least, other characters in the memoir should be at least as fully developed as the first-person narrator. That’s just good storytelling.

  • Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.

Yes, that is a good rule of thumb. But that’s a good rule of thumb for all writing – fiction, nonfiction, poetry. And where Mr. Genzlinger gives the writer a little too much credit is when he admonishes us to not “publish it” – as if we have complete control over that. I mean, I’ve submitted lots of writing for publication, that doesn’t mean it’s all in print. That’s why we have editors – to keep the bad writing out and let the good writing through. And yes, it’s true, we live in an age where self-publishing is becoming all too easy. But any discerning reader knows the difference between a book put out by a large house press or a university press and one put out by Kindle.

It’s a scary time to be writing a memoir. It’s true that there’s been an outpouring of memoir in recent years creating an “absurdly bloated genre,” as Mr. Genzlinger puts it. And it is ultimately good that readers and critics look closely at the burgeoning genre and comment in an effort to shape just exactly what makes a memoir “good.” What makes for “good” fiction and “good” poetry has been hashed out, discussed and belabored. In an era that is welcoming in nonfiction with unprecedented open arms, it seems natural that this sort of banter and heated debate should ensue. And that adds a heightened sense of responsibility when writing. This, in the end, is a good thing. We who are writing in the genre should welcome the discussion. But any discussion, no matter how many bits of good advice it entails, that tells you your life is not worth writing or that you should “shut up,” should be put in its place immediately.

There will always be Genzlingers out there. Take the good and trash the crap. Refuse to be silenced. And write a kick-ass memoir.

5 thoughts on “If I Wasn’t Scared Before… Writing Memoir in Genzlinger’s Age

  1. I almost did a post about this article myself, Gabriel, but you did a much better job, so I’m glad I didn’t tackle it. It’s heartening to read your rebuttal (and yes, you gave credit where it was due–he did have a few good points) and your encouragement to fellow emerging writers to “refuse to be silenced” and “write a kick-ass memoir.” You go girl!

    • Thanks, Susan. It’s challenging to be objective when faced with so much rancor, but I think that we’re better writers (at least, in this case for sure!) than Mr. Genzlinger who clearly didn’t follow one of his own rules: giving himself perspective. That article was more mean-spirited than any I’ve seen in some time. What was perhaps even more disconcerting were the positive comments he received. This tells me something about where readers are in regards to memoir these days, and that raises the bar. And that, ultimately, is good for us all. Thanks for reading!

  2. Gabriel, awesome job responding to Genzlinger’s article. Great job sorting through the crap to the nuggets of good advice. I think that too many people rush to get their story out there because memoirs are popular, and the work ends up failing to provide a strong and engaging narrative. I love reading memoirs, but not all of them are written well. Yet, I would never tell anyone that because there is a gluttony of memoirs on certain subjects, do not bother. Instead, I would say read a lot of works (fiction and poetry not just memoirs), write a lot, elicit feedback from good readers and writers, and be willing to put your heart and soul into revising – which will, hopefully, lead to a better narrative. As Judith Barrington writes in her book, Writing the Memoir, “Writing a memoir takes not only apprenticeship in the craft itself but the constant gathering of suitable themes, incubation time, and the musing on your material that will bring insight to the final story – a preparatory period that is needed for all kinds of creative writing”.

    It has taken me years to process the events of my childhood and the associated themes –abandonment, alcoholism, poverty, sexual abuse, physical abuse, death, grief and rage. When I was encouraged to write a memoir in graduate school, I wrote several essays and stories about the events of my childhood. Although the feedback was in workshops was encouraging and the work was well-received, I was told that I was “holding back”. I did not have enough retrospective. I was rushing through the narrative. I needed more balance between telling and showing.

    What I needed was a longer apprenticeship. I needed to read more memoirs and practice the craft of writing for several more years. I needed more musing on the material. I still have the drafts and notes from the workshops, but now I am considering other ways to construct the story.

    Why do I feel compelled to write a memoir? I have thought of this often, and the answer is because I am drawn to “bearing witness” which is the same reason I write short stories and poetry. I cannot ignore this impulse.

    Keep writing, Gabriel. I believe it will be a kick-ass-memoir!

    • Thanks so much, Cindy! Your feedback and encouragement are so valuable to me. We all need readers like you 😉 And speaking of kick-ass memoirs…get writing! xx.

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