Tag Archives: memoir

Mary Karr Reveals Her Favorite Memoirs

28 Oct

KarrMary Karr Credit Illustration by Jillian Tamaki via The New York Times

Mary Karr, memoirist extraordinaire, has a new book out. It’s not a memoir but a book about writing memoir: The Art of Memoir. I’m adding it to my ever-growing must-read list.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Mary Karr speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival and at the Festival of Faith & Writing, and of course she is the author of The Liar’s Club, Lit, and Cherry.

I love Q&As and was thrilled to read her answers to The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review “By the Book” column. I got some great reading inspiration (Annie LiontasLet Me Explain You, about a Greek-American family), I loved her answers to whom she’d invite to a literary party (can I get an invite?!), and I was happy to discover her favorite memoir is St. Augustine’s Confessions, since I had recently discussed the book in my class “Writing Under the Influence of the Beat Generation” at the Hobart Festival of Women Writers.

I was especially intrigued by her question “Do Flannery O’Connor’s letters count?” to the question “Who are the best memoirists ever?” I used Kerouac’s letters for much of my research for Burning Furiously Beautiful. I think in some way, letters are a form of memoir. In another way, though, they don’t necessarily adhere to the intentional literary craft I discussed in my response to “In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode?” Though a great letter writer is better than a mediocre memoirist!

You can read the full interview with Mary Karr here.

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Should We Judge the Quality of a Memoir by Its Confessions?

21 Oct

jamison-bookends-master315Leslie Jamison Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson via The New York Times

At the Hobart Festival of Women Writers, part of my class, “Writing Under the Influence of the Beat Generation,” was about confessional writing. As a class, we took a look back at the first examples of confessional writing in literary history before plunging into the poetry of Diane Di Prima, who is associated with the Beat Generation.

The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review posed the question “In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode?”

Leslie Jamison wrote:

These days, American literary culture features both a glut of so-called “confessional” work and an increasingly familiar knee-jerk backlash against it: This writing is called solipsistic or narcissistic; it gets accused of lacking discretion or craft. Its heritage is often traced to women writers, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and its critiques are insidiously — and subcutaneously — gendered. So many of the attacks against the confessional mode come back to the language of the body: An author is spilling her guts or bleeding on the page. Her writing whores itself out, exposing private trauma for public fame. (Or a four-figure advance and an adjunct job.)

Ouch! But, unfortunately, so true. Jamison says:

Because people have grown so obsessed with the drama of Plath’s life, they read the poems solely as reflections of its traumas….

In other words, readers get so caught up in the content that they forget the style. This is a huge tragedy. Commercial memoirs today are all about celebrity or about hard-won, momentous moments in life. There is certainly room for works that celebrate and motivate, but is that the whole or only point of the memoir?

I’ve often heard people sarcastically remark that memoir writing is egotistical. Or else, they denigrate their own lives by arguing there’s nothing in their life worth writing about. I disagree. Whole-heartedly. First of all, the process of writing a memoir is at its core about seeking a balanced truth that is far from self-promoting. At times, the memoirist may even feel self-loathing. But again, every life matters. Everyone has something to say. Everyone is complex and interesting.

Memoir is not just about a flat telling of one’s life. It’s storytelling. It’s choosing words that capture a moment so precisely that the reader can step into the author’s world even if their lives are vastly different. Memoir, in the end, is about craft. It’s an art form.

The Personal “I” in Literature: Narcissus & Literature at the Onassis Festival

12 Oct

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Is writing inherently narcissistic? Even when writing in the third person, can the writer ever fully disappear from the page? Is the personal “I” more trustworthy in journalism because it acknowledges the reporter’s presence? Is the personal “I” in literary fiction more prone to becoming an unreliable narrator than a third-person narrator?

Lorin Stein, editor in chief of The Paris Review, sat down with Donald Antrim, Elif Batuman, and Jessica Moss to tackle the question of how writers interact with the mirror of the page in the panel Narcissism & Literature at the Onassis Festival‘s Narcissism Now: The Myth Reimagined on October 10, 2015.

Jessica Moss, professor of philosophy at NYU, opened the dialogue up by discussing Plato’s RepublicShe discussed Plato’s thoughts on writing in the first person versus the third person, literary concepts that didn’t quite yet have terms at the time. She revealed that Plato believed that a first-person narrator should be “a good, noble person.”

The author of The PossessedElif Batuman is also well-known for her journalism for n+1 and The New YorkerShe related that she likes putting herself into her journalism pieces because she feels she will be perceived as more trustworthy. Her editor, at times, disagrees, telling her to remove herself from the story. Batuman transitioned the conversation from the Greek Plato to the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky. She told how Dostoyevsky — or as Jack Kerouac would call him, Dusty — originally wrote Crime and Punishment in first-person diary form before switching to the third-person narrator of the published version. In discussing this, the panelists agreed that the third-person showed the story through more action.

Donald Antrim, who also frequently writers for The New Yorker, is the author of the memoir The Afterlife, which deals with his relationship with his mother, Louanne Antrim, and resulted in him writing in the third person to tell her life story. Antrim explained that one of the pitfalls of the first-person narrator is that he or she is constantly in the reader’s ear, justifying his viewpoint. Antrim said, “We’re not interested in a narrator who’s telling us all the time what to think.” Antrim brought the conversation from the Greek Plato and the Russian Dostoyevsky to the English Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, an interesting exploration of narration, which starts out as a letter from a sea captain, transitions into Victor Frankenstein telling his story, and then transitions into the story of the monster.

Antrim said, “The third person doesn’t require having things figured out”; he explained that, in contrast, a first-person narrator either is telling the reader exactly how he or she feels in that moment or is reflecting on that moment. Stein said the first-person stories that interest him are the ones where there is dramatic irony because the narrator doesn’t know something. He suggested French novels use more immediate first person than American novels do. That reminded me of how Darcey Steinke once said French authors think American writers write “close to the house,” an expression, if I remember correctly, that suggested American authors over-explain themselves. As a memoirist, this is something I’ve spent significant time thinking about and working out in my writing. I once had someone in a workshop come up with what they thought was a revelation about why I acted and thought the way I did and she asked me if I realized that thing about myself, and I, frankly, was surprised that she’d asked me that because I had purposely written to reveal that very same thing. I had thought my subtlety was a sign of good writing, but their question made me wonder if people would think I’m not self-aware if I don’t spell things out for them. Unfortunately there wasn’t a Q&A for the panel because I would’ve been quite curious to hear the panelists thoughts on immediacy and self-awareness in memoir writing. I was surprised there wasn’t more talk about memoir, personal essay, semi-autobiographical writing, and the insertion of the personal “I” in journalism in a panel on narcissism. The discussion of narration in literature, however, was riveting.

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Memoirist Michael W. Clune Speaks on Exploring Solitude in His New Book

30 Sep
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My brother could probably play video games before he could walk. He recently told me about a book he was reading about a woman from the same tech sphere as him.  Big sister as I am, I naturally clicked on an article a video-game inspired book when I saw it in case it might be something to pass along to my brother. What I discovered was an interview that resonated with my own life and work.
In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered, author Michael W. Clune talked about Gamelife, his memoir about growing up playing video games that speaks to the idea of solitude. He says:
My mother told me early when I was young that what’s most meaningful in life are the relations you have with other people. In this book, what I really wanted to explore was the part of life we have — the part of life we live — when we’re not with other people. The part when we’re alone.
There’s the cliche that we’re born and we die alone, and I take that quite seriously, and I believe that our most powerful and profound experiences in many ways are solitary experiences, and I believe that computer games, like literature and like some other devices in my life, were a means of training me for that kind of solitude.
Though I did play videogames as a child, it wasn’t a large part of my life. Solitude, however, was. And just as Clune said, it was suggested to me that solitude was a negative thing. Though my parents and teachers praised me for reading and writing, I was also made to believe that I was abnormal for indulging those pleasures at the expense of playing outdoors with other children.
Even as an adult, as I’ve struggled through writing my memoir, I’ve heard mentors and instructors say again and again that protagonists have to be decisive, goal achievers at odds with outside forces. They can’t be writers. They can’t be people who just sit around and think.
They can’t be me?
I feel a little vindicated when Clune says, “I believe that our most powerful and profound experiences in many ways are solitary experiences.” Maybe he doesn’t mean this literally. Maybe he means that even when we’re in relationship with people who love us dearly and whom we love, our experiences, even when shared are, at their core, are so highly individualized that they are solitary.
Relationships—family relationships, friendships, romantic relationships, literary camaraderie—are relevant, important. But so are times of solitude. We need quiet, private moments to ourselves to know ourselves, to be ourselves, to reflect, to dream, to pray, to read, to write, to rest, to imagine.

Clip: Resource Published My Article on Flashes of Hope

28 Aug

Resource

The summer 2014 issue of Resource features an article I wrote that I’m extremely proud of. I interviewed the founder of Flashes of Hope, a nonprofit that takes photographs of children with cancer, to talk about how the portraits empower these children. The professional portraits also serve as lasting mementos for the families of the 25% of the children photographed who don’t survive. The nonprofit shows just how powerful art can be.

Cancer is a personal subject for me. This summer I did a few readings from a chapter I wrote called “Grief Gone Wild” about the summer I lost both of my grandmothers to cancer a month apart from each other. I was glad to likewise get to put my creative nonfiction to positive use to write this article on Flashes of Hope and show that moments of strength, beauty and even joy can be found even in the midst of trying times.

Hear Me Read at The Red Room This Wednesday

25 Aug

redroom

I’m excited to reveal that poet RA Araya asked me to read with a bunch of super talented artists this Wednesday, August 27, 2014, from 7 to 10pm, at The Red Room. RA usually somehow manages to persuade me to read Homer in the Ancient Greek (no small feat!), but this time he said I was free to read whatever I wanted so I’m planning on reading from my memoir. If you’re interested in getting a candid look into my weird life, now’s your chance!

Author Ronnie Norpel will be hosting. She runs a great reading series uptown, and I admire the way she makes transitions between sets so natural. The other artists scheduled are each so unique that it’s kind of a dizzying array of poetry, jazz, fiction, and tap dance:

poets performance at 7pm:

  • Moira T. Smith
  • Sarah Sarai
  • Stephanie Nikolopoulos
  • Liz von Klemperer
  • Linda Kleinbub
  • The tap-dancing and choreography of Camille Schmoeker

music by The New York City Brass Brothers at 7:45pm

Chris Barrera & the ‘flash-back-puppy’ band at  8:15pm

The venue is gorgeous. I kind of want to live inside of it. The brainchild of Denis Woychuk, The Red Room is a lush speakeasy-style lounge on the third floor of KGB Bar (85 East 4th Street) in the East Village in New York City. It even has a bathtub by the bar!

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The event is $10, but I have a special discount offer for you: if you rsvp on Facebook you get half off! There’s also a 2 drink minimum.

See you there!

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For other upcoming events, check out my appearances page. If you’re looking to book me for a reading or hire me to teach a writing workshop, you can contact me at snikolop {@} alumna.scrippscollege.edu.

Buzzfeed’s Take on Who Should Play My Mom and Dad in the Movie Version of My Life

20 Aug

quiz

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m just a liiiiittle obsessed with taking quizzes. I especially love the Buzzfeed ones. Don’t judge.

A while back I saw the Buzzfeed quiz “Who Would Play Your Mom In The Movie Version of Your Life?” Of course I had to take it. I’ve spent some time daydreaming what actors might play my family in a film adaptation of my memoir. I took the quiz and it revealed Sofia Vergara (from “Modern Family”) should play my mom! Well that made good sense to me. My mom is one hot mama!

So when I saw they now had a quiz called “Who Would Play Your Dad in the Movie Version of Your Life?” I took it immediately. I had always thought Kelsey Grammer (you know, Frasier) would be a good fit for my dad. Buzzfeed thought otherwise. They picked Samuel L. Jackson!

Pause just a moment to picture a family with Sofia Vergara as the mother and Samuel L. Jackson as the father. …Are you picturing it? Welcome to the family!

 

 

 

I’m Reading from My Memoir at The Penny Farthing

29 May

c3June22014

I’m super excited to share with you that I’m reading this upcoming Monday, June 2, 2014, with one of my favorite groups and venues!

That’s right — I’m reading at Beyond the Mic, a C3 Storytellers event, hosted at The Penny Farthing (103 3rd Ave., downstairs in the speakeasy), right here in New York City.

The C3 Storytellers have been supportive of my writing for awhile now. The first time I read with them back in 2012, one of the other poets literally made up a poem on the spot about my memoir. You can read it here. Then the next time I read with them, I read from the Kerouac biography I was coauthoring that hadn’t yet come out. C3 Storytellers’ and The Penny Farthing’s support earned them a place in the acknowledgments of Burning Furiously Beautiful. Needless to say, I’m grateful for welcoming groups like C3 Storytellers and artist-friendly venues like The Penny Farthing.

I’ll be reading a different section from my memoir-in-progress again this time around. I’m just one of many people who will be sharing work. I’ve always been very inspired by the other artists as well so you’ll be in for a treat hearing them. Doors open at 7pm. The event is free, though there’s usually a basket for donations (no, they don’t go to me); and you can purchase food and drinks. I’d love to see you there!

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My memoir is still a work in progress, but you can purchase the Kerouac biography here.

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Check out the appearance section on my website for other upcoming readings and workshops. I love giving back and encouraging other writers, and I co-lead a free writing workshop once a month through Redeemer (the next one is June 23). If you’re interested in having me give a reading or writing workshop, contact me at snikolop {@} alumna.scrippscollege.edu.

 

 

I’m with Guo: American Literature IS “Overrated”

19 Feb

Gao

“Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society,” said Chinese British author Xiaolu Guo, speaking about the effect American literature has had on Asian reading habits, on a panel about global literature at the Jaipur Literature Festival.

Oh, and she called American literature “massively overrated.”

I kind of agree. I love American literature, but when I was getting my MFA and started attending writing conferences I began to get frustrated by the push toward what I’ll call commercialism. What I mean by this is that a lot of the feedback I received had to do with creating scenes, telling a story, writing a memoir that reads like a novel. I suppose that’s good feedback because that’s what people want to read…

—Except, I don’t. Much of contemporary fiction seems so contrived to me. Worse, it’s lacking in Art. It’s straightforward, it’s fast-paced, and it’s even enjoyable, but in the same way a sitcom is. Now, I’m not one for magical realism, so I’m not saying I want to venture as far away from the American tradition as Guo might be suggesting, but I think a little messiness, a deeper dive into postmodernism, some stream of consciousness, less obviousness, more layered meaning would do our literature some good, would give it a little more heart, a little more authenticity, more rigor.

What do you think? Which American authors are you particularly enjoying right now that you think would change my mind?

Dani Shapiro Explains Memoir Is Not Autobiography

29 Jan

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When I tell people I write memoir, they tell me that they don’t think they could ever write memoir. Their lives are too normal. No one would want to read about their boring lives. The implication is that they think I must be pretty hot on myself if I’m writing memoir.

But that’s not what memoir is about.

In her excellent “Open letter from Dani Shapiro: ‘Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook‘” on Salon, Shapiro provides clarity on what memoir is and isn’t and why we read it:

Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir “Slow Motion” because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Read that last sentence again:

You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Beautiful. A lot of memoir writing and reading is about understanding ourselves and our life stories better.

She goes on to further explain that memoir tells an aspect of one’s life through a specific viewpoint:

The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records.

I spent a lot of my time talking about the differences between memoir and autobiography while getting my MFA, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me point blank if writing memoir means I can just make things up. Um, no. If I wanted to make things up, I’d fiction, which frankly, sounds more appealing. Who really wants to write about themselves, to open their lives up for others’ critique? No, memoir sticks to the truth, but it is not journalism. We create dialogue out of the cobwebs of our memory, not through a transcribed secret recording of our entire lives. There are things we leave out, not because we are necessarily hiding things, but because they are irrelevant to the story we are telling. The reader doesn’t need to hear about my commute, for example, unless of course something about my commute is interesting or is relevant to understanding who I am or is a metaphor.

I recommend reading Shapiro’s article in full if you’re interested in memoir as a genre. Also, check out her great blog.