September 17, 2013

“And we feel seen”: Memoir as shared space


At The Millions earlier this month, Beth Kephart wrote on what she calls “the Outward-Looking Memoir” one which signifies, one which connects. Kephart begins,

Why, in the end, do we read memoir? What’s in it for us these stories about someone else, these hundreds of pages of adversity and self-discovery, triumph and tarnish and gleam?

Later, she asks, “So what does memoir offer? What can it yield? Why am I, after all these years, still reading it, teaching it, shaping it, seeking it?” Her essay, at its core, asks more than it tells. Yet she offers her personal reasoning:

The answers are many, but here I offer just one: Because memoir at its very best is the start of a conversation… True memoir is a singular life transformed into a signifying life. True memoir is a writer acknowledging that he or she is not the only one in the room.

The concept of a “true memoir,” as Kephart calls it, seems to relate at its most basic level to literal truth. At her essay’s beginning, Kephart mentions James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, whose “not-true ‘true’ stories” betrayed their readers’ trust. It was not that these were written poorly, not that they were inferior arts, but that we were told they were true. This gets at something inherent to memoir—a sort of contracted trust between speaker and listener, a means of building an unlikely relationship, a communion for a person reading alone in a room. Despite a reader’s acceptance of fiction and fantasy, breaching the confines of truth and fiction are often unacceptable in memoir. It is an experience similar to reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Violence of the Lambs,” which, though I won’t exactly spoil it, ended with me thinking something like, “but I trusted you.”

Nevertheless, “true” writing could also have very little to do with facts, just as novels and poetry can transcend their fictions in offering something of emotional truth. Some memoirs are beloved not for their stories but for something ephemeral and airlike within them: for me, books like Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies, Maureen N. McLane’s My Poets, Johanna Adorján’s An Exclusive Love. Memoirs which, though they are true, by their writing become even truer.

Ultimately, Kephart exemplifies the perfect memoir-as-art-form with Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly:

Bauby is “locked in,” unable to move or speak. It’s his left eye that saves him—his left eye, which he relies on to blink at the slate of letters an assistant shares. Blink by blink, letter by letter, Bauby communicates his story. He was a famous magazine editor, we learn. He is trapped, we learn. But he is still alive and still, miraculously, hopeful. And even though each word comes slowly, even though he has no words to spare, Bauby makes the explicit effort to tell us about ourselves. He looks up from where he is and acknowledges our presence.

Bauby, in short, wants to leave behind an artful record of what it is to live.

Through her own experience—having written five memoirs and taught the form—Kephart has earned ways to tell us about what is incandescent and nearly untraceable in a good memoir. She writes,

The talk, in my classroom, is about transcendence. It’s about making the work bigger than the writer. The record is only the record, I say. Make the details speak for all of us… Memoirists must succumb to weeks, months, years spent examining (and cross- examining) themselves. But things grow claustrophobic—monochromatic, monologue-esque—when memoirists fail to say to the reader—one way or another—I know that you have lived your joys and sorrows, too.

Maybe this, then, is the difference between autobiography and memoir: autobiography a life, memoir many. As Kephart writes of Kate Christensen’s Blue Plate Special, “She looks up and glances across her page. I see you, she says. And we feel seen.”


Emma Aylor is a former Melville House intern.