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Filtering by Tag: memoir

Emotional Truth in Memoir

Christina Lee

Karr For months now, I’ve been trying to write about my dad walking me down the aisle. I’ve been failing miserably and I haven’t known why. Of course it’s partially family loyalty: any time I talk about his depression, even casually, I feel like a kid cussing on the 6th grade playground. There’s also the fact that my wedding was the best and most fabulous day of all the days—why focus in on the bittersweet?

The smoldering wreckage of this draft was on my mind when I booked tickets to see Mary Karr, the patron saint of memoir, speak at the L.A. Library’s lecture series, Aloud. I hoped just being in her presence would help me.

I was right. At the risk of sounding like a super-fan, pretty much everything she said was awesome. (And she said it all while wearing killer gold-chain-bedecked boots.)

I was especially struck by her ideas on truth. She began by reminding us that all writers fight the tendency to sensationalize. In extreme cases, this leads to James-Frey-level disaster. Of course, most of us know not to cross that line. (Whenever I’m tempted to, I imagine a giant, sprinkle-coated hand descending from the sky to choke me.)

Most of us struggle with a subtler lie: the lie we’re telling ourselves. We find our own experience a bit boring, so we tell little lies as escape. We undervalue the real story, so we ramp up the drama.

On some level, I already knew to be on the watch for both these pitfalls. What surprised me was Karr’s claim that our truth is actually more interesting than our dramatizations. As she writes in The Art of Memoir, “A memoirist forging false tales to support his more comfortable notions—or pump himself up for the audience—never learns who he is. He’s missing the personal liberation that comes from the examined life.”

To illustrate this point, Karr told us about her process of writing Lit. She said she wrote several drafts vilifying her husband. Then she wrote one vilifying herself. Neither felt true. Many drafts in, she realized the real story was how she’d held on to hope for her marriage long after she had reason to. Her hope was so strong, she said, it embarrassed her.

Here she turned to the audience, in her very warm way, and said, “you know?”

The whole crowded nodded—one motion, like a group heartbeat.

And I got it. I got what she meant. The power in memoir isn’t in the tallness of the tale, but in the knowing together, author and audience. And to get to that point, what you say has to be true.

So I looked back at my draft. Most of it was a lie. Not a sprinkled-hand-level lie. The sneaky kind…a lie to myself. I’d been wrapped up in being dramatic, and I’d been writing myself as the saintly, victimized daughter.

What, if anything, do I really know about the ten years we’ve lived with my dad’s depression?

This is what I know: 1.) His depression has hurt me 2.) I can’t seem to find the words to describe that hurt. And I don’t just mean writer’s block. I mean that whenever I try to write about it, I clam up, emotionally. If I resent him, I’m selfish (and also a cliché…another female writer with daddy issues). Do I get to feel anything other than thankful he’s alive? Do I get to feel abandoned? Can I claim this story, or is it only his to tell? And if my words don’t heal him, what are they even worth?

Alright. So all I know is I don’t have the words. For a writer, it’s a very odd discovery. Even weirder: it’s the first thing I’ve written about him that actually feels true.

I should note that there’s a sharp distinction in Karr’s book between interior truth and cold hard facts. In The Art of Memoir, Karr clarifies this—we are not supposed to be producing “crisp external events played from a digital archive. It’s the speaker’s truth alone. In this way, the form constantly disavows the rigors of objective truth.” However, this is not permission to ditch our emotional honesty. As she says, “I couldn’t report a malicious quip from my ex-husband without mentioning that he never spoke to me that way.” We don’t have to obsess over getting every practical detail right, but we do have to let truth guide our narration.

Armed with all this, I begin another draft.

Here is a memory of my wedding day: I’m at the top of the Carmel Beach stairwell. I’m watching the choppy waves and straining to hear my entrance music. Dad turns to me and says, “Did you know I had several seizures today.” And I say, “I’m sorry. Are you proud of me, though?” And he says, “Yes.”

But just now, as I write this down, a different memory surfaces. This time he says, “Remember how we used to come here on vacation? This is so neat. This is just so neat.” He squeezes my hand.

This essay will take me a long time, but I’m okay with that. Now, more than I want to write something dramatic, or something sad, or something to publish, I want something true.

The Art of Rock and Roll Memoir

Howard Schaap

16 Schaap August “U2 is what church should be”; so read a line in Time Magazine when I was 13, a line that confirmed my fledgling belief in U2. I certainly felt elated and worshipful listening to The Joshua Tree, though I wasn’t entirely sure it was right to feel that way. This was just after The Joshua Tree had broken U2 worldwide enough to reach rural Minnesota, and just as the album and film Rattle and Hum, according to most critics, showed they had feet of clay.

Personally, I loved the black and white concert footage of Rattle and Hum.  I loved the impassioned diatribe in “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” so much I used it to pump myself up before junior varsity basketball games.

I first got to see U2 live during the Zoo TV tour, a very different animal.  Bono licked the camera; Bono pulled the camera up to his leather-clad crotch; Bono came out dressed up as Mephistopheles.  It wasn’t very churchy.  Critics loved it.  I was 16 and in the tenth row and unsure about these rock and roll antics.

I missed the Pop Mart tour, noted for its spectacle, and the props I saw on later tours—a laser-laced jacket, a swinging microphone, a stage like a spaceship—were perhaps not as grand or silly as the giant lemon.

This time around the U2 tour is called Innocence to Experience and, via home movie and songs new and old, concert-goers are invited on a trip down U2’s own memory lane while live tweets and fan-cams attempt to keep us in the present.

I was also struck by the emotions that I went through at this U2 concert.  There was still the old elation, this time consciously tied up with surrender: at one point Bono went to his knees and said that very word (“Surrender to what?” I can hear my catechism teacher say).  It sounds contrived, but to be fair, as Joshua Rothman points out, surrender is where U2 lyrics have been pointing all along.

And there was conviction, as usual.  “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” is still like an open wound that brings me into the present moment and forces me to give a shit.  Then, too, I’m not sure what American can listen to “Bullet the Blue Sky” and not consider it a call to repentance.

Perhaps more than in the past, though, this concert invited introspection, because if anything “Innocence to Experience” is memoir.  Some have called that self-important, but it’s also just plain risky.  You don’t go to a rock concert to introspect.  It’s also rare.  Rock concert memoir is simply not very common, the half-life on rockers being less than the average pair of jeans.

As good memoir does, I to E also provided leaping off points to consider where our own stories might intersect with the one being told on stage.  For me, that moment was when confetti in the form of book quotes fell from the ceiling.  I found myself gathering them madly, like veritable manna from heaven, to see what works they might be from:  Alice in Wonderland, The Divine Comedy, the Psalms.

Over the years, U2 concerts have put me in the moment, moved me to care, frightened me with tongues and crotches, confused me with Mephistopheles, asked me to surrender, connected me to Alice in Wonderland.  Is U2 what church should be?  I don’t think so.  U2 concerts are their own space, the artistic space of a rock and roll concert.

Memoirs: Self-Obsessed or Sacramental?

Stephanie Smith

American novelist Henry Adams once wrote, “Everyone must bear his own universe, and most persons are moderately interested in learning how their neighbors have managed to carry theirs.”

This line, written in 1918, would be an understatement for modern readers who are consuming the published memoir as fast as it can be printed. The memoir, as a published form of self-narrative, has successfully climbed the literary ladder, claiming equal standing with the traditional novel and receiving recognition by literary scholars as a genre revolution. Within the past thirty years, the memoir has asserted itself as a rising trend in the writing world.

Yet public responses are mixed: skeptics claim that the memoir indulges in syrupy solipsism, the theory that the self is the only reality, while enthusiasts praise it for the value of self-discovery through story. With an emerging cultural impulse to chronicle the self and such conflicting estimations of this trend, the church must join the conversation. The church must recognize the rise of the self-narrative as a signpost for the human longing for transcendence and affirm storytelling as a sacrament in the high art of illuminating divine grace.

The memoir is a personal narrative that provides the author with a verbal processing of the self’s “becoming.” This kind of literature has charmed millions of readers with this human interest appeal in bestsellers such as The Color of Water by James McBride, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. The voice of memoir offers its readers an occasion for personal identification so that a reader can find him or herself within the story of another and perhaps borrow the wisdom, healing or insight from similar life threads.

Henry Adams’ idea of the private universe of men is being born into memoir, as the individual universe of motherhood experience, healing from the trauma of abuse, or growing up in a racially mixed family is translated into print. The private universe of the writer, then, opens up a new world to the reader in which a common human spirit is realized, introducing the memoir as a catalyst for community.

The Church’s Response: Stories as Sacrament

The church is no stranger to self-narrative, understood in Christian circles as spiritual testimony, and Augustine’s Confessions is just one example. Beginning with the gospels and later patterned in martyology, hagiography, confession and conversion testimony, the story paradigm is rooted in ancient church tradition. The church has an evangelistic responsibility to engage the rising confessional characteristic of culture for kingdom purposes rather than dismissing it as a narcissistic endeavor. The church need not be suspicious of the collective cultural cry for self-understanding, having its own so satisfied in the Person of Christ. Instead, the church must bridle the technique of self-narrative for Christian testimony, and affirm the art of life story as a powerful witness for grace.

The pattern for spiritual testimony finds its structure in the grand drama of redemption, as the unfolding story of a believer’s sanctification is only understood in the identification with the rhythms of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The storyteller must then recognize the tension between the cosmic Story of redemption and the echoing story of personal redemption. By telling personal story within the framework of God’s Story, we can engage the cultural trend of self-narrative while adding the new, redemptive element of pointing beyond the self to the Savior.

The cultural rise in the self-narrative affords the church a powerful opportunity to channel the very same confessional trait into spiritual testimony. The church can enter the social scene of life-writing by affirming it in theology as sacrament and encouraging it in practice as testimony. The church is already a credible voice in the self-narrative genre not only because of its tradition of testimony, but also in its sacramental ability to transcend the very story it tells by praising the grace of the Divine Author, something no secular memoir can claim. The art of testimony, then, trades a religion of solipsism, characterized by self-devotion, for a religion of sacrament, marked by the surpassing of the self to point to the Savior.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She is a member of the Young Professionals of the Southern Tier and blogs for Moody Publishers at