Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Accidental memoirs

All criticism is a form of autobiography.
David Shields, How Literature Saved My Life

Pauline Kael
Pauline Kael, The New Yorker's film critic for many years, was once asked if she had considered writing her memoirs. "I think I have," she replied. Her response, echoed by David Shields years later, meant that when she was writing about movies, she was also writing about herself. Often, it seems, memoirs are written when writers think they are writing something else.

Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, has said she didn't realize her recent book, My Life with Bob, was a memoir until she heard her publisher refer to it as such. She had thought she had just written a book about the books she has read.

Lee Smith
Lee Smith's book Dimestore: A Writer's Life began as a series of articles she wrote for such publications as the Washington Post, the New York Times, House and Garden and the Independent Weekly. When these essays were assembled under one cover, they became a memoir, covering her life from girlhood to now.

Novelists often write their memoirs in the form of fiction, especially first novels. One reason second novels are often so difficult for writers is that they have already told their own story in their first novels. The second novel requires more creativity, and is thus more difficult. Smith admits as much in one of the essays in Dimestore. Her second novel was awful, she says, "as second novels sometimes are if we write them too soon, having used up our entire life so far, all the great traumas and dramas of our youth, in the first one."

Smith realizes now that all of her novels, as different as they may seem, were really about herself. "I write fiction the way other people write in their journals," she says. She quotes another novelist, Anne Tyler, as saying, "I write because I want more than one life." Different novels by the same author may tell different stories about different characters, yet each, in a sense, is a disguised memoir of that author, which is why authors' biographers devote so much attention to the published works of those authors. The trick, of course, is to separate the truth from what is truly fiction.

Other forms of writing, including blogs like this one, can also be accidental memoirs, telling life stories on the way to telling something else. Any form of self-expression (which is, by definition, the expression of self) does this.

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