Thursday, December 15, 2011

Review: The Memoir Project

[Marion Roach Smith. The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-standard Text for Writing and Life. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2011.]

Despite the fact that most books about writing that are worth reading say pretty much the same things, I still like to read them -- that tendency in writers is something that writers who write about writing depend on to make a living, I think. Anyway, I was on a festive book-buying binge in the big city last weekend, and I successfully avoided buying anything for myself until the last really good store that I was in. I was resisting the urge because, thanks to school, I'm largely not in any need of nonfiction reading material for the next six months or so. But I couldn't resist. And this book was one of my indulgences.

My addiction to books about writing -- at least, to those that aren't those awful, misleading things that amount to lists of "tips" and "rules" -- was only one reason why this book caught my attention. I was also drawn to it because one major focus that emerged in some of the work I did in the past few months in one of my courses was theorizing about the role that memoir can play as theory and as contribution to social change, with an eye to actually doing some writing of that sort once I'm able to take on big projects again. I may or may not actually end up pursuing it, given that I have always been powerfully affected by reading such theory but have not always been comfortable talking about myself in ways that allow me to write it, but it's a possibility. So I picked this book up. I knew it was not going to be about quite the same uses of and approaches to memoir that interest me, but I thought it still might be useful.

My feelings about this book are mixed. Despite the commonality of advice among non-awful writing books, there is still a wide variation in how well such books work. The biggest distinguishing feature in this book's approach is a vehement opposition to engaging in writing that doesn't go anywhere. In some ways, I think this is great advice. For one, it opposes the tendency that some people have to engage in endless writing exercises rather than actually writing whatever it is that they claim they want to write. That particular strategy of not-writing is not one that has ever really captured me (though of course we all indulge our own repertoire of ways to not-write sooner or later and I am no exception). Nonetheless, I think there are lots of people who do do this kind of thing -- who write to avoid writing -- whether it is out of anxiety or not really knowing how to just plunge in and do it, and this book's point is simple and sensible: you can practice best while actually writing what you want to write, not while composing some pointless scene or undirected paragraph based on a random prompt. And that leads to the most important facet of this advice, which is the fact that one of the most important kinds of questions to constantly ask ourselves as we write is, "Why am I doing this? What do I want this piece to accomplish?" That is, our intent is crucial to how we write pretty much anything, to how we ground our decisions about what to say and how to say it, and we aren't going to get better as writers if we are not constantly returning to this question -- and exercise-based writing means we have no intent to return to. The importance of figuring out why we are writing a given piece, and of shaking off the habits we learn in high school of writing purely to obey instructions rather than to accomplish a goal, was, in fact, one of the central points I made at the writing workshop I facilitated back in the spring.

However, there are other ways in which I think this book's opposition to writing that is not already driving in a particular direction does its readers a disservice. I don't mean exercises, which I agree are largely pointless. Rather, I mean techniques like freewriting and undirected journalling. This book doesn't dwell on its opposition to such practices the way it does on exercises, but it does make a couple of snide asides about "morning pages," a term used by famous writing and creativity teacher Julia Cameron for the practice of doing a timed freewrite -- just keep the pen moving, writing whatever, even if it is the same word over and over again, until time is up -- as the first bit of work you do every day. And I just don't see that as pointless in the same sense that exercises can be. I mean, there is lots of room to say critical things about Cameron and her work, but morning pages are a very useful tool. Cameron may defend them in hopelessly flaky language, but they do get my pen moving and they do help me get into the work for the day. And there are other moments when freewrites, either wide-open or concentrated on a particular theme, have been absolutely crucial to me figuring out what intent I'm going to be writing with, when I get to the next stage of whatever it is I'm working on.

The book makes a few other really important points. For instance, its insight that memoir is not autobiography, and that memoir is not primarily about you, is important. Rather, memoir is about some theme or idea, and you use your own life to illustrate or explore that theme. That is an important distinction. Similarly, her emphasis on doing first drafts that just get words down on the page no matter how embarrassing or confused is hardly original, but her evocative phrase "vomit draft" graphically captures how first drafts should work. And her appropriation of "murder your darlings" from an early 20th century book on writing as advice for how to relate to editing is also cleverly put and well taken. By and large, though, the content is pretty standard, which is to say worth reading and well told but not particularly original, and in a few places it wanders dangerously close to decontextualized "rules" and "tips," albeit never the way that the not-worth-reading writing books do it.

There is something else about the book that bothers me, though, and I'm having trouble pinning down exactly what. It's not that the writing isn't good, because it is -- I suspect the author's newspaper experience means she can produce clean, clear, engaging prose faster and more dependably than I'll ever be able to, for instance. There are some great anecdotes, too, sometimes used in quite clever ways. But there is still something that bothers me, something that nudges me towards wariness about memoir in general. Partly, I think, it is because there were instances where the anecdotes were not well used, where the very act of deploying details of life with intent to drive the book forward felt too smooth, too neat, not real. This is consistent with experiences I've had elsewhere of mainstream memoir, where the complexities of life are left on the cutting room floor in the name of good writing, with no recognition of the pedagogical and political implications for the always-present but sometimes hidden element of memoir that is theorizing the social. It reminds me of the oral story telling of a couple of people that I know personally, which in some ways can be very engaging and shows an eye for what is "neat" in everyday life that I often don't have, but that also shows a tremendously heavy but largely unconscious hand in editing life and the social world to allow such moments of everydayness to emerge as simply tellable and enjoyable in a way that poses no danger to broad complacencies and refusals-to-know. I know that memoir doesn't have to be like this -- I've read more than enough that isn't like that to know that for one hundred percent certain -- but this book is a good, if unintentional, warning about one way that it can go.

Anyway, if you share my addiction to books about writing, this isn't a bad one to add to your collection. But if you are looking for the very best, or you only plan to read one or two books about writing, I wouldn't pick this one -- Pat Schneider and Natalie Goldberg remain my favourites.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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