“Memoir is not autobiography,” author Dani Shapiro wrote in a January 2014 open letter on Salon.com. “When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary. She is not confessing. She is not doing some sort of public striptease. Her whole entire life is not up for grabs.”
So what is memoir? Shapiro and fellow memoirist/novelist Nick Flynn discussed the nuances of the genre, among other topics, during a recent evening of conversation as part of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Winter Words series. Shapiro is the author of the memoirs, “Slow Motion” and “Devotion,” and Flynn has written a trilogy of memoirs, including the award-winning “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.”
Each has written extensively about one of their parents, their relationship with the parent, and how that relationship has impacted their psyche. Writing about such an emotional topic as a troubled relationship with a parent, both authors said, requires creating a bit of distance.
“It’s the picking and choosing of what belongs and doesn’t belong in the story,” said Shapiro, whose deeply religious Jewish mother had high, often unmet, expectations of her daughter. “There has to be some distance, some perspective on the self; otherwise you’re right up against it, and there’s all the resentment and anger. Emotion is incoherent, but observing it gives it the beginning of coherence.”
Flynn, who recounts his reunion with his alcoholic, homeless father in “Suck City,” suggested that memoir “is a strange place to write in because what you do is create a character of yourself. There are aspects of myself that are in the book that have to feed the project that is the book.”
But the character of Nick Flynn doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole, real-life Nick Flynn, he said. Furthermore, Flynn’s character changes depending on what stage of life he’s gong through. So his character in “Suck City,” which was published in 2004, is quite different than the Nick Flynn in “The Reenactments,” published nine years later.
Memoir “freezes a moment in time,” explained Shapiro, who went on to ask Flynn, rhetorically, if “Suck City” would be the same book if he had written it today. “The relationship of oneself to the story at the time the story is told has got to have an impact on the story itself.”
So if writing memoir is about choosing storylines and crafting characters, how much do the authors rely on their memories as opposed to personal journals or other notes from their lives, asked one audience member.
Flynn said that he has no notes or journals from his childhood.
“I spend a lot of time writing from my misremembered past,” he said. “And that’s more interesting for this type of writing. If you did all the research first, you would be cut off from your internal memory, which is the juice for this kind of work (which is creative nonfiction).”
Shapiro, on the other hand, kept copious journals, she said. But when she pored through them at the beginning of writing “Slow Motion,” she explained, “I felt like I didn’t have a book. Because the voice in those journals had nothing to do with the book I was trying to write.”
Shapiro packed up the journals and put them away, knowing “that young woman with the loopy handwriting was not going to help me.”
“Memory is a whole different animal,” she said.
Whether it’s trying to understand an estranged family member or seeking to be better understood — both reasons Flynn and Shapiro cited for writing memoir — perhaps Flynn summarized it best in the passage he read from “Suck City,” which includes this line:
We all need to create the stories that make sense of our lives, our daily tasks.