Like Tess Monaghan, I am tempted to down a shot whenever I hear a television anchor misuse the word “ironic,” but I’m not sure I use the word correctly myself. Given that I have just trudged through my latest copy-edit, I’m not sure I’m entitled to mock anyone’s usage. This is my 14th novel and some problems do not appear to be abating — the subjunctive, my use of commas, my inability to remember if it’s Haussner’s or Hausnner’s. (The former, I think.) So is it “ironic” that, having finished, more or less, a book that takes a pretty skeptical view of memoir writing that I bought Abigail Thomas’s book on memoir writing while listening to Anthony Bourdain’s KITCHEN CONFIDENTIALl?
No, on all accounts. I admire Thomas extravagantly; her memoir, THREE DOG LIFE, was one of the best books I read last year. I admire Bourdain and decided to listen to his memoir, which I had read when it was first published eight years ago, because I had forgotten huge swaths of it. In fact, I had forgotten pretty much everything except: a) don’t eat fish on Mondays and b) don’t use a garlic press. But KC is very much a memoir. In fact, it belongs to the subgenre of addiction memoirs, but it is unique among those volumes in that the writer’s addiction is secondary to the main story. Perhaps more addiction memoirs should be written that way.
Even as my hand closed on Thomas’s book, a book that would seem to be an odd purchase for me — I will never write a memoir, in large part because of my memory — I heard Bourdain say, “Writing is treasonous.” The sentence caught my ear. It’s much better than Joan Didion’s assertion that every writer knows what he/she does is indefensible, an assertion that Janet Malcolm later cited.* I’ve always felt that Didion and Malcolm somewhat overstate the case, yet I was taken with this even bolder, broader statement. Writing is treasonous. And, as Bourdain makes clear, the writer betrays not just family and friends, but self. Every memory he shared, Boudain wrote/read, was reduced by the sharing. In a sense, it’s like selling one’s name for a portion of . . . was it really pottage? Was it really a name? I’ll be Googling as soon as I file this.
I am skeptical of memoirs. Show me a pair of quotation marks, and I assume that what sits between them was actually said, that it was heard by the writer, or established as fact by the writer via diligent reporting. I don’t assume everyone has a memory as bad as mine, although I do think most people who believe they have good memories are deceiving themselves. Just last night, the SO and I drove to a performance of the local “Stoop” series, a storytelling performance in which we have both participated. I said something about the seven-minute time limit. He said it was nine when he did it. I said, no, it was seven. Nine, he insisted, with great vehemence. I let it go. I will no longer argue on the basis of my memory, on any topic. We got to the theater and picked up the programs, which noted the Stoop was an ongoing tradition in which participants were given SEVEN minutes to say their piece. I pointed it out, not because I love being right, but because I will seize any opportunity to show someone that a memory upon which he/she has been insistent is wrong. My hope is that people will abandon memory-fueled disagreements, starting in my household, where people challenged on their memories tend to restate them at a higher volume.
So . . . was it really at the exact moment that I picked up Thomas’s book that I heard Bourdain’s words? It makes a better story, but is it true? Does it matter if it’s true? It does if I say so, and for now, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. But when I read David Sedaris, for example, I don’t assume I’m reading factual essays, but hyperbolic reminiscences. There is a difference. And Bourdain’s memoir is structured in a way that doesn’t ask us to believe that he is remembering experiences exactly as they happened, but he is remembering them as he remembered them. Again, there’s a difference.
But note: the sentence is not, “MEMOIR writing is treasonous.” It is: “Writing is treasonous.” Which means my novel, with all its skepticism about memoir, also is a form of betrayal. Do I agree with that?
*I’m pretty sure I’ve inverted the two women’s arguments, that it was Didion who said writers were selling people out, Malcolm who said we all know what we do is indefensible.