Wednesday, October 22, 2008


I am writing a memoir. 

It has taken me five years to admit that.

I set out to write the story of a yoga retreat gone bad in Bali, Indonesia, about five years ago. For the first year, and the first draft, it was a memoir-- at least technically, if not in spirit. I told myself I was just getting the events down on the page so that I could manipulate them into fiction later. I had little desire to write a memoir; too easy, I thought. Too boring. I wanted to write a comic novel, a difficult, serious process. An art form that relies on craft, not just memory and the luck of having had interesting experiences. (I will admit to still holding onto a slight prejudice against the voyeurism of the memoir, the ego of the memoir, the memoir-as-truth. Could be too many years in a PoMo fog. Could be that half the memoirs I've read have made me think, "If you were telling me this story in a bar, I would fake a burst appendix to get away from you and the cruel injustice that was your childhood.")

And now I, jaundiced eye and all, am writing a memoir. I have tossed out the novel based on the true story, because it doesn't work. I spent four + years writing this novel. It has some funny moments, and some in particular I will be sad to let go of. But in re-reading the novel after letting it lie fallow in a drawer for a year, this much is clear: it is the true stories, the events that actually occurred, that have a gleam about them, that feel true and funny and real. The fictionalized bits feel forced and overwritten. It feels like two books smooshed into one. A memoir, and a novel. For autobiographical fiction to work, it must read like a novel. It must be a coherent whole, not a hodgepodge of two different crafts. 

My gut is telling me that autobiographical fiction is not my genre. When I work on short fiction, the stories seem to come from nowhere. I start in with a first sentence and, on a good day, a world begins to emerge. It makes me understand why some people feel that writing fiction has an element of the mystical about it . . . at least for that first draft when you somehow know so much about these strangers you've created. (By the second draft, of course, the magic gives way to pure mental labor.) But I've decided that from now on, if a story is true, I'm going to write it as memoir. And if my goal is to write a novel or a short fictional story, then I will follow the path from one sentence to the next, allowing the characters and the events to unfold.

But here's the truth: Memoir is terrifying. Even trying to write funny pieces about pissdrinking and revirginization. I am terrified of revealing too much of myself. I couldn't count how many times I've overshared with people I hardly know, only to go home, go to bed, and then toss and turn wishing I could have kept myself to myself. I want to choose which aspects of my life to share and which to withhold. I'm sure it comes from my mother, who is also intensely private but not so compelled to tell you every damning thing about herself when she gets a glass of wine in her. 

I've read some beautiful, hilarious memoirs by extraordinary writers. Anne Lamott, Shalom Auslander, Chris Offutt, Mary Karr, Lauren Slater, Christopher Isherwood. These writers jackknife themselves open like oyster shells. When I think about writing as honestly as they do, it feels like doing some sort of violence to myself, that every night when I go to bed I'll toss and turn and wish I could still hit delete, that I could erase it all and go back into my cave, anonymous, safe.

I've often thought that the worst way to be imprisoned would be in an enormous, empty warehouse. Totally exposed. I like a hobbit hole, a cabin, a turret. But this compulsion to expose is starting to feel exhilarating. Terror exhilarates. Maybe I secretly want to be a literary flasher, trench coat and all. Yoga Bitch, the show, is autobiographical, and the closer it gets to the bone, the more revelatory it feels. 

Well, huh. Maybe I don't want to be exposed so much as revealed. And really? I'd like to make you laugh. And if I do my job well, some of the stupid shit I've done will make you laugh. At me. And I'm fine with that.

Wish me luck, please, for the love of God.


JM said...

Perfect picture. Love this post. Go fight win.

Lulu said...

This is hilarious because this is exactly what happened to me. I had my adventure (at almost exactly the same age and time you did, just in a very different place/situation), tried to turn it into a funny novel and the publisher said 'this needs to be a memoir...'