First and foremost, Happy Valentine’s Day!
I took a break from Don Quixote this week to read A Wolf At The Table, A Memoir Of My Father by Augusten Burroughs because I started the first draft of my own memoir over the weekend. I’ve been thinking a lot about creative nonfiction and the difference between honesty and confession, the difference between art and therapy and art as therapy. I came across an article in Salon, “Salon’s Guide To Writing A Memoir,”
by the Salon staff that seemed to address all of the questions and hesitations I had about the genre.
Creative nonfiction is the most challenging genre for me to work because there is no narrator to hide behind like there is with fiction. Characters and narrators help me to keep the work at arm’s length, to maintain an air of professionalism that sometimes blurs when I step into the nonfiction realm.
I’ve seen nonfiction in it’s messy, rambling, confessional, diary first draft state—and here I’m talking about my own work—and what I wanted was to turn that into art, something that others could relate to and possibly learn from. It’s not enough just to be shocking for the sake of being shocking—I know that from my fiction. There has to be more, a story, and if not a story (because I’m not 100% sold on the idea that every book has to have a plot), a memory left behind that challenges the reader and shows us how the narrator has grown, changed, developed.
With memoir, this means taking a good look in the mirror, and asking myself repeatedly, “Why do I have this belief? Where does it stem from?” I have to step back and not judge myself as I come to certain conclusions, and I have to be honest with myself. Most importantly, I have to leave space for humanity; the fact that I make mistakes as do others. Judgment and opinion sort of have to sit on the back burner while I sort out the facts, which are mostly memories.
I watched Running With Scissors a long time ago, and the scene that broke me was the one near the end where Augusten eats a sandwich made by his ‘step-mother.’ It just put the whole story in perspective, for me. Everything built up to that scene.
Later, Husband and I listened to Possible Side Effects by AB on audiobook during a road trip. It helped to hear AB’s voice, his pauses, and the work spoken as it ought to be read. It was funny and mortifying, but most importantly, it was human.
Obviously, reading A Wolf At The Table, was a completely different experience from the other mediums in which I have experienced AB’s work. This time I was mining for the difference between confession and honesty. Places where I felt uncomfortable. I was looking for that sandwich scene, looking to see how this all built up. What I found was this passage:
Maybe, I thought, I don’t need a father to be happy. Maybe, what you get from a father you can get from somebody else, later. Or maybe you can just work around what’s missing, build the house of your life over the hole that is there and always will be.
The whole book leads a reader in one direction, and then naturally, seamlessly brings them to a whole different place. The book is as much about AB as it is his father. And never, not once, did I feel tricked or feel like what’s the point? AB’s work is not popular just because it is good; it’s popular because it has purpose.
On that note, I will leave you with some pictures from a recent snowshoeing excursion I went on with Shadow. Not all writing happens behind the desk. And while working in memoir feels super uncomfortable, feels at time downright icky because being the center of attention seems narcissistic—it’s nice to remember life is not only about me or my place in it.