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November 15, 2013

Memoir for Grown-ups: An essay

Filed under: Authors, Literary — Alison Aten @ 10:47 am

Kevin FentonToday’s post is by Kevin Fenton, author of Leaving Rollingstone.

Patricia Hampl calls Leaving Rollingstone “the most important memoir to come out of the Midwest (or anywhere) in years, an indispensable work of American autobiography.”


When people learned that I was publishing a memoir, some of them asked me: Are you old enough to write a memoir?  My first impulse was to tell them that a) I am fifty-four and that b) when cardiologists see me, they often weep with despair. So, yes, I’m old enough. Then I realized that “Are you old enough to write a memoir?” is a polite way of asking their real question, “Are you famous enough to write a memoir?” To them, the word “memoir” triggers a very particular set of associations. Memoirs are written by those of us who’ve waged wars, negotiated peace, cured diseases, transformed societies, or, at the very least, married a Kardashian. Regular people do not write memoirs. I might as well have told them, “I’m thinking of having a statue made of myself. Know any good parks where I can put it?”

But I’d argue that what’s been called the literary memoir — in other words, a memoir by someone who is unexceptional except for their ability to write about their experience — is essential and valuable. The advent of the literary memoir is an extension of some big trends in literature and the humanities. We have moved from writing about God in the bible to writing about kings in Shakespeare to writing about regular people in the novels of George Eliot and Charles Dickens. In fact, we read novels precisely because we believe that a human life which might otherwise be unnoticed by history is worthy of attention. It’s not that big of a jump to care about real people.

The word “memoir” itself doesn’t do me any favors. It does, after all, start off with me, which tends to reinforce the perception of narcissism that surrounds the genre. But good literary memoirs aren’t just about their author. They are about that portion of history which the author has witnessed. They are about the estuary where larger historical trends mingle with the individual human life. No other genre can give us the particular insights that come from that intersection.

If Leaving Rollingstone were just about me, it would be a very different book. In the book, there are four lines about the most traumatic romantic relationship of my life — a relationship which left debris strewn over an entire decade — and there are about twenty lines about Spirographs. There’s a single brief flashback acknowledging four happy years at Beloit College — and an essay-length meditation on a book I read in 1995 and didn’t much care for. (It illuminated the book’s themes.) Leaving Rollingstone is about me but it’s also about family farms, small towns, and Catholic schools and their surprising legacies.

It’s useful to replace “literary memoir” with “personal history.” “Literary memoir” has always bothered me because it over-emphasizes the aesthetic. In its sometimes impressionistic way, my memoir was history. It spoke to the closing of schools, the loss of farms, the distinctiveness of a culture, and the influence of a zeitgeist. It spoke for a particular place and time and, most importantly, for particular people. If a president talks smack in his memoir about his secretary of state, the secretary probably has some recourse. But my record of my parents and friends and neighbors in Rollingstone is probably the only extensive record that will be left of their lives.

So while I wrote with the fallibility of personal witness, and the urge to create a shapely story, I evolved some rules for myself. First, you don’t have to be a neurologist to know that memory is tricky. I tried to write in a way that reflected that understanding without belaboring it. With the exceptions of some particularly vivid memories, I tried to report routines rather than events and ongoing impressions rather than momentary experiences; I tried to make it clear when I was passing on anecdotes which might have been rubbed smooth by retelling. I included very little dialogue and flagged the dialogue I did include as conjecture. When I presumed to record what my mom and dad might have been thinking on a particular morning, I used language that made it clear I was making an educated guess.

And you don’t have to be a French theorist to know that, even if memory is a perfect record of the past, human speech is twisted by our relentless agendas and alibis and limited by what Frank Bidart called our “proximate and partial” relation to truth. Given this, I tried to understand the perspective of others and to perforate my own self-justification. I tried to get the main historical facts right. Another way of saying all this is that I tried to act like a grown-up. And that brings me back to the question I started with. Am I old enough to write a memoir? The answer is yes, but just barely.

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