Festival of Books: Memoirists share private-turned-public lives
This post contains a clarification; see bottom for details.
Charles Shaw knew the moment he hit rock bottom. It wasn’t in the throes of the novelist’s crack cocaine addiction or even the time he spent in prison writing much of his book “Exile Nation.” It was right when he got out of the clink and got a job at Trader Joe’s stocking … you guessed it.
“It was the only job I could get, and stacking boxes of wine with my name on it every day literally pushed me to the brink of suicide,” Shaw said, to hearty but uncertain laughter at Saturday’s “Memoir: Over the Edge” panel at the L.A. Festival of Books at USC.
Whereas Shaw saw fear in a crateful of bargain merlot, members of the panel had written memoirs that shared similar confrontations with evidence that their lives had changed.
For Cheryl Strayed, the aptly named author of the hiking memoir “Wild,” it was a trek to the Pacific Crest Trail to escape a failed marriage and unhappy home life. The death of Emma Forrest’s psychiatrist in “Your Voice In My Head” meant the loss of a confidant, and the unsolvable mystery of who he was as a person. When Dinah Lenney’s father was murdered, her correspondence with his killers forced a reckoning in “Bigger Than Life.”
“I got a letter from one of his killers explaining exactly what happened that day,” Lenney said. “And turns out that if you want to publish a letter, it doesn’t belong to you but to the person who sent it. So I had to get permission from my father’s killer to use his letter. But I made a connection that I otherwise never would have, and it was astonishing to go through that.”
Memoir is inherently a sensationalist genre, turning private pain into public narratives. All the panelists admitted to the alternating currents of power and debasement that come from personal storytelling.
“The first four years I was writing this book, I never said ‘crack,’” Shaw said of his prison memoir. “As a society, we’ve said crack is for poor people; powdered cocaine is for rich, glamorous people. It turns everyone into a [jerk] equally. It wasn’t easy for me to talk about every major [screw up], but there’s power in accountability.”
Strayed agreed. Even though “Wild” was more a journey of self-discovery than atonement, she believed bloodletting is the memoirist’s most essential tool, and one that makes the process fair. “If you’re going to show anyone’s [behind], it had better be your own.”
Lenney conceded that the form has its ups and downs. “Memoir has a bad rap, but it’s a fundamentally generous genre,” she said, adding wryly, “I absolutely wanted to touch you!”
Even for a book as singularly focused on the process of emotional exploration as Forrest’s, the actual reality of memoir-as-a-career is a separate source of anxiety for her. When you finish a memoir, "it’s literally a closed book. But on the promotional side, you’re stirring up things you’re finished with. You have to talk about this terrible, dark stuff you’re finished with for two years, for a hardcover and a paperback edition.”
Forrest cited Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” as an inspiration for how to structure what is essentially an unstructurable narrative (her mental breakdown fraught with self-injury). That album’s dreamlike melodicism paired with devastating, straightforward lyrics is an unlikely but apt parallel for memoir-writing. Strayed likewise appreciated the uniqueness of the form for allowing an author to openly use coincidence and resonance to wring meaning from life that might be trite in fiction. “Life can be more symbolic in a way that fiction isn’t allowed to be,” she said.
All the memoirists saw universality as the key goal of telling individual stories. But Shaw most explicitly made the connection between his prison term and national phenomena. He made memoir-writing sound like its own kind of incarceration, with fear and guilt as your cellmate. But the story should ultimately be bigger than yourself.
“There are 10 million people in the correctional system in America right now. There are 65 million who can’t pass a background check,” he said. “This has affected so many people that I thought if I took a risk, maybe others would talk about it.”
Illustration by Judy Pryor / Los Angeles Times
[For the Record, 5:15 p.m. April 25: Dinah Lenney says this post should have been clearer about the use of a letter from her father’s murderer that she discussed during this panel. She described the letter in her book, but did not publish the letter, because she wanted no further contact with the murderer.]