“The amazing thing about a memoir retreat,” I said to my friend Claire yesterday.
“—is that they exist?” she finished.
“No.” I laughed, then paused. “Well…maybe. I was going to say the amazing thing about a memoir retreat is that, in the course of a few minutes you get to know someone in a way that otherwise takes months or years. You say, ‘What’s your writing project about?’ and they tell you their big story. The thing they haven’t figured out yet. They thing they can’t get over. The most difficult experience they’ve ever had. It’s instant intimacy. And everyone—I guess because they’ve already made the decision to write about themselves—is just incredibly open.”
Many people, I think, will be quick to dismiss the idea of a memoir retreat altogether. And while no one has said this to me yet, I can imagine what they might say: “Why on earth would it seem like a good idea to bring together a bunch of narcissists and say to them, ‘Write more about your own trivial experiences! Publish them!’ Why would we—in the era of blogs, and Facebook, and Twitter—encourage even more oversharing? And why would we dare imply that that oversharing could be literature?”
The amazing thing about this particular memoir retreat–Wild Mountain–was that everyone I met had already asked that essential question: “So what?” And even if some folks didn’t yet have an answer, everyone understood, implicitly, that they needed one. No one seemed interested in what Susan Shapiro termed “upbeat anecdotal slices of life.”
Lately I’ve been struggling with a minor revelation regarding my own writing: I’ve got to be more honest—to bare more, to be more vulnerable—if I want people to read it. And being more honest requires more me in the book. It means, like it or not, that what I’m writing is a memoir. There’s just no way around it.
Steven Church, on his blog My Atomic Angst, explains his discomfort with the “memoir” label in a way that echoes my own:
I begged, in fact, during production, that [my book] not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. And I didn’t want readers to look at the cover and expect something different.
I am embarrassed to admit this in front of my fellow retreat-goers (and new friends) but I drove down to Leavenworth preparing myself for the possibility that I might be spending the weekend among overconfident self-promoters or–worse yet–evangelists of the upbeat anecdote and the dogma of uniqueness. Which is why I was relieved to hear organizer Theo Pauline Nester declare on the first night: “Your story is not new.”
The amazing thing about this particular retreat is that, unlike several of the reviews of Associated Writers Program conference the weekend before, every response I’ve read to Wild Mountain has been insistently, unwaveringly positive. As my friend Amy Stolls said about AWP: “Judging by the post-conference commentary, [attendees] were either quietly inspired to write more and write better, or were crushed by the sheer numbers of writers attending and vowed never to attend an AWP conference again.” (See also Steve Almond’s lukewarm “The Writing Industry is Booming, even if the Book Industry Isn’t.”)
For me, universal positivity always inspires a particular brand of knee-jerk cynicism: Students don’t complain about an assignment? It’s not challenging enough. A book is unanimously lauded? It must be shallow. A lot of people like my blog post? I’m being a crowd pleaser. I do not trust it—in the same way I don’t trust people who dress appropriately for every occasion, whose hair always stays in place. Universal positivity is just spackling over some darker truth, warns a voice in my head. A memoir retreat is popular? It must be pandering. But damn is it hard to be cynical toward a group of people who have generously and willingly opened themselves up to you within the first few hours of your acquaintance. Some things, I struggle to admit, are just good. Some compliments are well-earned.
Yes, Wild Mountain might seem like a perfect illustration of the booming writing industry Steve Almond saw at AWP: a two-day stay at a rustic-but-luxurious resort with some writing classes thrown in. But that’s a pretty narrow view of what the retreat offered to so many people: an authentication of the personal story, a reiteration of the value of human-to-human connections.
The atmosphere at Wild Mountain was probably inspired by keynote speaker Cheryl Strayed, who seemed to be admired at the retreat with, at times, fanatic devotion. Such admiration is easy to dismiss (see above), but I remember reading “The Love of my Life” my first year of graduate school and finally sensing that my decision to transfer from a fiction writing program to a creative nonfiction program was not the product of my own misery, but of some larger instinct about the kind of writer I could be. Her first sentence was a revelation to me: writing could be like that. It could be bare-bones honest without being sensational.
So I, too, am bound to my admiration. (And perhaps it is important to remember that, though it is rare, some people succeed out of sheer deservingness. And thank God the world we live in allows for that once in awhile.) In her talk, Cheryl urged us to “write with a sense of abundance. Be happy for others’ successes.” And to “surrender to mediocrity” rather than worrying about our own talents and abilities. As far as writing advice goes, this is solid stuff, advice more interested in enabling others’ success than in celebrating her own.
Wild Mountain could’ve pandered to writers who had sacrificed their time and money by simply telling them what they wanted to hear: that their stories were marketable, that their experiences were interesting just by virtue of having happened. Instead everyone—faculty and attendees alike—railed against the idea that your story is about you, or that anecdote equals art. But the most valuable thing about the retreat was that it always brought our attention back to the thing that matters most for a writer: the work itself.
Theo describes memoir as “a genre in its adolescence.” She thinks readers are increasingly interested in memoir because we’re out of touch with the stories and storytellers of the tight-knit communities of the past. She believes we’re reading memoir to learn how to live. And I love this idea. Intuitively, it sounds right to me.
Steven Church, in that same blog post, (and, I think, on a panel at AWP) agrees about memoir’s potential as a genre:
I want to believe that we can also think of the expectations of memoir more generously, more broadly than the confessional or traumatic. I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at it’s best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow. Perhaps like all literature it is aiming to capture the sublime confluence of these and other human experiences through the synchronicity of ideas and emotions.
So I’ve been thinking about what this all means for me. As a memoir writer, I’ve got to stop being defensive, to stop worrying about the larger perception of what I’m doing and focus on the work. And as a writing teacher, I’ve got to start championing—both in my classes and in the world at large—the generous possibilities of memoir. Because our stories matter.