Writing personally

Memoir should show many sides of subject

On my first date with a woman back in 1990, she handed me a terrific books of essays titled "Against Joie de Vivre," written by Phillip Lopate.

Eventually, she and I married, but later divorced.

Visiting her this year, I found the book sandwiched between her washer and dryer. It had curvature of the spine and was cankered with mildew. I write personal essays for pleasure, and I share Lopate's droll doubts about the cultural obsession with living large. So I took the discovery of his book as a sign and attended his workshop on memoir and essay writing this summer in New York.

It's not just the Chers and Bill Clintons writing memoirs these days. A Web site called "Creating a Personal Memoir of Your Coast Guard Service" provides evidence that increasing numbers of folks are trying to tell their stories.

Maybe you, too, are writing a memoir for your kids or grandkids � a superb gift, I think. A barebones account of your life may be plenty. But most readers of memoir, Lopate said, want to look at the "deep grooves of character."

A memoirist who wants a larger audience, he said, has to shine a light into his own shadows and "interrogate the cracks in his own sureness."

"If you're writing personally," he said, "you have to view your life as problematic. If it's not problematic, it won't have drama."

I like that. I've been fool enough in my time to crawl through a few barbed wire fences whose strands were very close together. For me, problematic is � well � no problem.

There were 18 of us at Lopate's seminar. Our motives for writing were many.

One writer commemorated her lovable, mildly retarded aunt, whose stuffed tiger got a $400 repair at a doll hospital. Another shared the ripping grief of a husband's accidental death while scuba diving.

For the last five years, I'd been writing a book about going back to spiritual ground after a long time away from religion. I submitted one piece to the class about a time not long ago when I acted badly. It was about two women and my divided heart, about hurt, betrayal, divorce and looking for a spiritual solution to pain.

I twisted together several strands of myself in the piece � the part that lost its moral bearings; the part that dissects what's painful with the scalpel of intellect; the part that longs for the divine.

One classmate thought all of this more than problematic � "monstrous" was the word she used.

Lopate said, "I don't have any difficulty accepting Roger as a character. My standard of perfection is lower."

Then he quipped, "But maybe Roger should call his book 'Frankenstein Searches for God'."

We all cracked up. Frankenstein the heady doctor and Frankenstein the rampaging manchild � I've got both in me. But the word "monstrous" pained me. I asked Lopate, "How can a memoirist who acts badly make his shortcomings palatable?"

He said, "Help us see the monster in you more clearly."

He advised I scrutinize what about me had repulsed one of the women in the triangle: "Be as honest as you can about yourself � and as detailed as you can about the situations you're describing."

A memoirist who's flawed and wants to overcome reader mistrust about his reliability, has to show he sees things from many points of view.

"Think against yourself," Lopate said.

If you're considering writing a memoir, you may want to heed that advice. If your kids or grandkids are the audience for your memories, you will be tempted to hide your indiscretions, doubts and dark passages.

But consider this. The surface of your life might be much less interesting to them than the deep grooves of your character, even if, here and there, they find splinters.




� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ku.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ku.edu.

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