I always have some mixed feelings about memoir and biographical fiction, probably because at the point in my life when I was most immersed in writing, books, and publishing it seemed that the golden ticket to getting subsequent books published was coming out with a heart-wrenching memoir. Writing such stuff would be a natural tendency for me – publishing such stuff would be impossible for me. So what did I do? I ran from it and tried with everything I wrote to push myself as far out of my realm of personal experience as possible. I could still use my voice, some of my tendencies and traits, but each protagonist must be not-me.
My writing was much more interesting and honest because of it.
Unfortunately I still find myself feeling guilty over reading memoirs unless it’s by a prominent figure or someone dealing with unique and extraordinary circumstances. I have a number of concerns when it comes to reading memoirs.
First, there’s my perception that the author is sort of throwing their family under the bus – and unless your family is ultra-shitty that’s just not cool. Every family is a bit shitty – it’s all just variations in style and degree – so where do you draw the line between normal family chaos and something so beyond the pale that it merits being documented in a book.
Even memoirs that have virtually nothing to do with family, memoirs that focus on a person’s career or life as a public figure, seem to require at least a line or two about a distant mother who was maybe hospitalized for a nervous disorder or about a father who drank too much or lost the family farm.
Then, there are my feelings of guilt for not reading something a little more literary. While it may often be harder to find a narrative arc and concrete themes within one’s own life, part of me still wants my authors to have to do the work of making some stuff up – creating something. I may as well call myself out on this particular hang-up – memoirs run the gamut of literary merit just like novels, short stories, and even non-fiction works.
There is also the memory/memoir conundrum. These books aren’t thoroughly researched histories peppered with references and relying on primary documents – they’re retellings and recollections. The one thing we know about memory is that it is above all else extremely faulty. In any given moment we are taking in information with our senses, but we are not taking in as much as we think we are. That is because our brain prevents itself from getting bogged down by filling in some of the background stuff rather than reprocessing it from moment to moment. It is a built in efficiency of the modern human brain and it is a generally a good thing, but when you stop to think that everything you are seeing in a given moment is not all actually being seen by you and that your brain fills in gaps like that all the time as you make your way in the world around you and then you realize it is really good at filling in those gaps from moment to moment and it is even better at filling in gaps when dealing with memory – well then it becomes a wonder people feel confident writing memoirs at all!
So why do I bring all this up? A friend recently lent me A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs. It seemed like the perfect thing to read right before a trip up north to visit my family, a way to put my family’s style and degree of shittiness into perspective. My family doesn’t try to use their poops to prognosticate, my dad isn’t a scary psoriasis monster, and my mother is actually quite sane as far as mothers go.
I generally find Burroughs to be a fast and entertaining read and so I tried not to worry about the fact that I have probably read more about his life than I could accurately remember from my own. He claims to have the kind of memory that would put a steel trap to shame, which allows him to almost visit his past, playing it back before him like a movie which he simply transcribes to create his memoirs. This technique alternately creates brilliant sensory detail and some fairly sloppy writing.
The movie playback technique sounds an awful lot like Augusten’s adept brain filling in and smoothing out his memories. Indeed, Burrough’s has even said that some of the finer details may have been swapped around or shuffled together, but that the major stuff and the essence of the details are true.
A Wolf at the Table is darker and less humorous than Burroughs’s previous works, perhaps because in his previous 4 memoirs he was able to work through enough of his emotions that he no longer needed humor to protect himself – or maybe he just wanted to write a different kind of book. While his dark humor is probably what I enjoy most about his writing, Wolf was stilled filled with enough excitement and some genuinely touching moments to keep me moving through it. Such as when a young Burroughs tries to work through his confusion about religion and a desire for faith and concludes:
I knew God existed as the Correct Answer inside my chest.
Since I can’t be entirely sure that my memories of the past are accurate maybe I should quit worrying about the accuracy of other people’s memories and their accounts of them. Maybe memoir exists as the Correct Answer on the page.
 Although once I did inform my mom over the phone that earlier that day I had pooped an almost perfect question mark. It was an over-share then and unmistakably my biggest and most awful over-share thus far on Book Badger.