[Paleopsych] NYTDBR: We All Have a Life. Must We All Write About It?
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The New York Times > Books > Critic's Notebook: We All Have a Life.
Must We All Write About It?
March 25, 2005
By WILLIAM GRIMES
In 1884, Ulysses S. Grant, desperate for money and terminally ill
with cancer, did what countless statesmen and military leaders had
done before him: he sat down to write his memoirs. Racing against the
clock, he turned out two substantial volumes on his early life and his
military experiences in the Mexican and Civil Wars.
By any measure, he had a lot to write about and a lot to tell. He
produced a classic memoir, as the genre was then understood: important
events related by a great man who shaped them.
But that was then.
Today, Grant's memoirs fall into the same sprawling category as
"Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure," "Bat Boy:
My True Life Adventures Coming of Age With the New York Yankees" and
"Rolling Away: My Agony With Ecstasy," to pluck just three titles from
the memoir mountain looming in the next month or two.
Actually, it's more a plain than a mountain, a level playing field
crowded with absolutely equal voices, each asserting its democratic
claim on the reader's attention. Everyone has a life, and therefore a
story that should be told and, if possible, published.
The memoir has been on the march for more than a decade now. Readers
have long since gotten used to the idea that you do not have to be a
statesman or a military commander - or, like Saint-Simon or
Chateaubriand, a witness to great events - to commit your life to
print. But the genre has become so inclusive that it's almost
impossible to imagine which life experiences do not qualify as memoir
Canvassing the publishers' catalogs, I was intrigued to see "All in My
Head," by Paula Kamen. It's about a headache the author has been
carrying around for more than a decade. It will do battle on the
bookstore shelves with, among many others, "Fat Girl," by Judith
Moore, a memoir of growing up fat and female, which in turn will
compete with another fat-girl memoir, "I'm Not the New Me," by Wendy
McClure, which will square off against "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A
Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation," by Samantha Dunn, who found a
new way of life, and a book topic, when she signed up for dance
lessons. Then there's "House," by Michael Ruhlman. It's about a house.
Is there not something to be said for the unexamined life?
In self-defense, I have tried to construct a memoir taxonomy, just to
impose some sort of order on this sprawling genre. Important
categories include the retired-statesman (or more likely, bureaucrat)
memoir, the traumatic-childhood memoir, the substance-abuse memoir,
the spiritual-journey memoir, the showbiz memoir, the spirit-of-place
or vanished-era memoir, the illness memoir and the sexual-exploit
To name just one recent example of each, in order: "Taking Heat," by
Ari Fleischer; "The Glass Castle," by Jeannette Walls; "Smashed," by
Koren Zailckas; "Leaving the Saints," by Martha Beck; "Kiss Me Like a
Stranger," by Gene Wilder; "When All the World Was Young," by Barbara
Holland; "Stranger in the Village of the Sick," by Paul Stoller; and
"The Surrender," by Toni Bentley, which sounds as though it might be a
military memoir but is not.
Obviously, categories overlap. Sexual-excess memoirs often have a
spiritual-discovery aspect to them, as do illness memoirs.
Spirit-of-place memoirs often shade into the ethnic-identity memoir,
which can, in certain instances, merge with the food memoir, as in
"The Language of Baklava," Diana Abu-Jaber's memoir, with recipes, of
growing up as the child of an American mother and a Jordanian father.
(It should not be confused with "Lipstick Jihad" by Azadeh Moaveni,
which is about growing up as an Iranian-American and does not have
Some memoirs defy categorization. Where do you place John Falk's
"Hello to All That," subtitled "A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace"?
The author, suffering from chronic depression, heads off to cover the
war in Sarajevo carrying a year's supply of the antidepressant drug
Zoloft stuffed into a tube sock. The book has a little bit of
everything: military combat, a spiritual awakening and lots of
If Grant had been born a century later, and had a smarter agent, he
would have mined his eventful life for several titles: one on the
alcohol abuse, a second on the illness and perhaps a third filled with
wistful recollections of his hometown in Ohio. It would have made a
strong entry in the "nostalgia for vanishing small-town America"
Neither the category, the premise nor the title can predict artistic
success or failure. It's all in the writing. "When All the World Was
Young," about growing up in the 1940's and 50's in Washington, does
not sound especially promising. But Ms. Holland, a shrewd, witty
writer, casts a sharp backward glance at America the day before
yesterday, when fathers ruled with an iron fist, children memorized
lots of poetry and a girl could take pride knowing that her hometown
would be bombed first when the Russians let fly with the H-bomb.
I look forward to "The Guinness Book of Me," by Steven Church, an
implausible-sounding memoir about the author's lifelong obsession with
the Guinness Book of World Records.
One particularly fecund minor category is the bad-job memoir, which
has brought out the bitter best in writers ever since George Orwell's
"Down and Out in Paris and London." (Modern-style memoirs often turn
out to have lengthy pedigrees, even the druggy ones, anticipated by
Thomas De Quincey's "Confessions of an English Opium Eater," which was
published in 1822.) Two brilliant examples are "A Working Stiff's
Manifesto," by Iain Levison, and "Job Hopper," by Ayun Halliday.
Ms. Halliday, the author of an anti-travel memoir called "No Touch
Monkey!," evokes the low-grade horrors of telephone solicitation,
waitressing and minding the stuffed polar bears at a children's
museum. Her misery resonates on that dismal frequency all too familiar
to the overeducated, underemployed and undercompensated.
The Levison book, whose paperback edition carries the subtitle "A
Memoir of Thirty Jobs I Quit, Nine That Fired Me, and Three I Can't
Remember," makes Orwell's Paris period look like graduate school.
Toiling in the kitchen of a bad bistro, Orwell may have experienced
some discomfort, but he never found himself neck-deep in cold fish,
shoveling for dear life, as Mr. Levison did on an Alaskan trawler.
I see no end in sight. The memoir infrastructure, at this point, rests
on a broad, solid foundation. For some time, scholars have devoted
serious attention to memoir and autobiography (sometimes conflated
into "life writing"), some of them attached to think tanks like the
Unit for Studies in Biography and Autobiography at La Trobe University
in Australia and the Center for Biographical Research at the
University of Hawaii.
A host of enablers has arisen, urging everyone who has not yet written
a memoir to do so as soon as possible. "Your Life as Story," by
Tristine Rainer, the director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies
in Pasadena, Calif., is but one of many advice books for aspiring
memoirists. Others include "Living to Tell the Tale," by Jane Taylor
McDonnell; "Writing the Memoir," by Judith Barrington; and "Writing
About Your Life," by William Zinsser.
Those who cannot write can always hire those who can. In a recent
Forbes column, Daniel Seligman commented on the growing trend among
big-shot executives to hire ghostwriters and pricey consultants to
turn out vanity memoirs.
There's absolutely no need to wait, either. The average age of the
memoir writer has been trending downward, quite sharply. Ms. Zailckas,
the author of "Smashed," is in her early 20's, and Melissa P., the
semi-disguised author of the erotic memoir "One Hundred Strokes of the
Brush Before Bed," was a mere teenager when she wrote the book. A
reader of this newspaper, responding to an opinion column on the
proliferation of memoirs, wrote a letter to the editor announcing that
she had created a memoir-writing workshop for her second graders.
When they get a little older, they may want to join one of the many
memoir groups that have sprouted across the country, small collectives
of aspiring memoirists who gather to talk about their lives and read
their memoirs-in-progress to each other.
Their efforts may be as fundamental as breathing. John Eakin, an
emeritus professor of English at Indiana University, has argued that
human beings continuously engage in a process of self-creation and
self-discovery by constructing autobiographical narratives. In a
sense, we are the stories - multiple, shifting and constantly evolving
- that we weave about ourselves, and this storytelling urge may even
In a recent essay in the journal Narrative, Mr. Eakin cites the case
of a patient of Oliver Sacks's who suffered from severe memory loss.
Most of his waking moments were spent reinventing himself,
constructing one story after another, as the previous one faded from
memory, setting off existential panic. No story, no identity. Everyone
is writing a memoir, all the time.
Almost a decade ago, James Atlas, in The New York Times Magazine,
proclaimed the age of the memoir. Then he posed a question. Can it
last? "Will memoir prove as evanescent as other cultural phenomena?"
Apparently not, since he just published his own memoir, "My Life in
the Middle Ages." It's about being middle-aged. That leaves plenty of
time for at least one sequel.
When Me Is the I's Favorite Subject
The current memoirs in the Critic's Notebook article, in the order
'CALLGIRL: CONFESSIONS OF AN IVY LEAGUE LADY OF PLEASURE,' by
Jeannette Angell. Perennial Currents/HarperCollins. $26.
'BAT BOY: MY TRUE LIFE ADVENTURES COMING OF AGE WITH THE NEW YORK
YANKEES,' by Matthew McGough. Doubleday. $22.95.
'ROLLING AWAY: MY AGONY WITH ECSTASY,' by Lynn Marie Smith.
Atria/Simon & Schuster. $24.
'ALL IN MY HEAD: AN EPIC QUEST TO CURE AN UNRELENTING, TOTALLY
UNREASONABLE, AND ONLY SLIGHTLY ENLIGHTENING HEADACHE,' by Paula
Kamen. Da Capo. $24.95.
'FAT GIRL: A TRUE STORY,' by Judith Moore. Hudson Street Press.
'I'M NOT THE NEW ME: A MEMOIR,' by Wendy McClure. Riverhead Books.
'FAITH IN CARLOS GOMEZ: A MEMOIR OF SALSA, SEX, AND SALVATION,' by
Samantha Dunn. Holt. $23.
'HOUSE: A MEMOIR,' by Michael Ruhlman. Viking. $24.95.
'TAKING HEAT: THE PRESIDENT, THE PRESS AND MY YEARS AT THE WHITE
HOUSE,' by Ari Fleischer. William Morrow. $26.95.
'THE GLASS CASTLE,' by Jeannette Walls. Scribner. $25.
'SMASHED: STORY OF A DRUNKEN GIRLHOOD,' by Koren Zailckas. Viking.
'LEAVING THE SAINTS: HOW I LOST THE MORMONS AND FOUND MY FAITH,' by
Martha Beck. Crown. $24.95.
'KISS ME LIKE A STRANGER: MY SEARCH FOR LOVE AND ART,' by Gene
Wilder. St. Martin's. $23.95.
'WHEN ALL THE WORLD WAS YOUNG: A MEMOIR,' by Barbara Holland.
'STRANGER IN THE VILLAGE OF THE SICK: A MEMOIR OF CANCER, SORCERY, AND
HEALING,' by Paul Stoller. Beacon. $23.
'THE SURRENDER: AN EROTIC MEMOIR,' by Toni Bentley.
'THE LANGUAGE OF BAKLAVA: A MEMOIR,' by Diana Abu-Jaber. Pantheon.
'LIPSTICK JIHAD: A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP IRANIAN IN AMERICA AND
AMERICAN IN IRAN,' by Azadeh Moaveni. PublicAffairs. $25.
'HELLO TO ALL THAT: A MEMOIR OF WAR, ZOLOFT, AND PEACE,' by John
Falk. Holt. $25.
'THE GUINNESS BOOK OF ME: A MEMOIR OF RECORD,' by Steven Church. Simon
& Schuster. $23.
'A WORKING STIFF'S MANIFESTO: A MEMOIR OF THIRTY JOBS I QUIT, NINE
THAT FIRED ME, AND THREE I CAN'T REMEMBER,' by Iain Levison. Random
'JOB HOPPER: THE CHECKERED CAREER OF A DOWN-MARKET DILETTANTE,' by
Ayun Halliday. Seal Press. $14.95.
'YOUR LIFE AS STORY: DISCOVERING THE "NEW AUTOBIOGRAPHY" AND WRITING
MEMOIR AS LITERATURE,' by Tristine Rainer. Tarcher/Penguin. $14.95.
'LIVING TO TELL THE TALE: A GUIDE TO WRITING MEMOIR,' by Jane Taylor
McDonnell. Penguin. $14.
'WRITING THE MEMOIR: A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO THE CRAFT, THE PERSONAL
CHALLENGES, AND ETHICAL DILEMMAS OF WRITING YOUR TRUE STORIES,' by
Judith Barrington. Eighth Mountain Press. $14.95.
'WRITING ABOUT YOUR LIFE: A JOURNEY INTO THE PAST,' by William
Zinsser. Marlowe & Company. $23.95.
'ONE HUNDRED STROKES OF THE BRUSH BEFORE BED,' by Melissa P. Grove.
'MY LIFE IN THE MIDDLE AGES: A SURVIVOR'S TALE,' by James Atlas.
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