I just Googled “fiction versus memoir,” even though I know the difference – and I suspect that you do too. My search results yielded the following top result: “Memoir or Novel? How to Decide.” It’s from a random literary agency that hosts an accompanying blog full of tips for would-be authors, and this was one of its posts. I admit to being a little baffled because I always assume that writers sort of know what genre they want to tackle. Do you want to make up a story or not? Ok, ok, I’ll concede that maybe at the beginning of one’s writing days, a little waffling may present itself. Writer: “I have a message I want to convey, but I’m not sure how.” But otherwise, “fake news” notwithstanding, we have FACT and we have FICTION. They’re different, right?
This summer the New York Times Book Review published a special section entitled “The 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years.” When you think about it, 50 years is a long time. (I can get away with saying that because I myself am over 75% of the way to 50.) In fact, I think “50 years” is a particularly long time in memoir-speak because except for the very few, most of the selections on this list were unfamiliar to me or caused me to go, “Oh riiiiiiiight. Forgot about that one.” The majority of memoirs seem to be the flashes-in-the-pan of the literary world.
Let’s take one of 2018 and 2019’s favorite memoirs. Raise your hand if you have read Educated. (Do you see what I did there? Education…school…raising hands…) In the event that you don’t know, Educated is the story of a woman named Tara Westover who extricated herself from a hyper-religious and hyper-survivalist childhood in Idaho, taught herself enough info to do well on the ACT, gained admission to Brigham Young University, and then earned a Masters and doctorate at Cambridge. The epitome of an against-all-odds story, Westover’s memoir chronicles a stratospheric ejection from her unorthodox childhood from every imaginable angle: educational philosophy (she entered BYU not knowing what the Holocaust was), religious philosophy (a hybrid of essential-oil-heavy “naturalism” and Mormonism), and family-relationship philosophy (Westover eventually realizes that “hey, this isn’t normal”). It’s made-for-television (except it’s real), and we read this type of thing slack-jawed. For those who have grown up in an environment like Westover’s – rare, but plausible – the book may provide a blueprint of hope. For those of us who did not grow up like that, it is a fascinating view into someone’s life as well as a reminder to “appreciate all that we have.” I suspect people will remember Westover’s book for a long time – how can one forget?
Lori Gottlieb, a therapist and the author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, shares about how she uses bibliotherapy with her patients in a recent issue of the NYT Book Review. She describes an interaction with one such patient: “’How many people’s moms set fire to their childhood possessions?’ [the patient] asked, rhetorically. I told her about a scene just like that in ‘The Liars’ Club,’ and she came in the next week, book in hand, sobbing. Someone — Mary Karr — understood, and maybe in a way that I, her therapist, never would.”
Here’s the tricky thing, though: Despite our fascination with the stories found in Educated or in another popular memoir, Michelle Obama’s Becoming (how many of us can claim First Lady status?), many of us will not be able to relate to these stories in their entirety. Small pieces may inspire, prod, or soothe us, but really, what we’re getting is often a sensational peek into someone else’s life. Where does that leave us if our own stories bely being defined by one specific narrative or – in less-technical terms – “thing”?
I recently re-read The Stone Diaries, Shields’ 1995 Pulitzer-winning novel, for the first time in approximately 20 years. It’s superb. I’ve been a huge Shields fan for many years – in fact, I’ve been trying to use Instagram to reignite excitement for Shields’ work (#FridaysWithCarolShields) – but this book left me amazed. (Why had I not re-read it yet, as I had done to almost all of her others?) Here’s the thing you need to know about Carol Shields: Her books almost always include characters who are documenting their own lives as well as the lives of others. Biographers, professors, artists, playwrights, poets.
The Stone Diaries is the life story – from birth to death – of Daisy Goodwill. It’s sort of like a memoir – except that it’s fiction. Some characters flit in and out, some are present for the long haul, and once in a while Shields allows others to poke their voices into the narrative by providing their opinions or “takes” on a situation. But it is Daisy’s story – a story that is sometimes remarkable (readers learn right away that she is born under duress) and sometimes, well, just sort of average. Despite the fact that The Stone Diaries is a work of fiction, someone (either the publisher or Shields herself) decided to include black-and-white photographs of Daisy’s family members and other players in her life, much like an (auto)biography would boast. (How fun is it to flip back and forth to find those photos once a new “character” is introduced?!) But, reminder: The Stone Diaries is a work of fiction, and this is merely a clever way to present Daisy’s story as “real.” (To blur this line even more, one can deduce – after taking a look at Shields’ author photo – that she’s included her own as well as family members’ photos in the bunch.)
Although Diaries is Daisy’s story, I’d argue that the novel’s overarching theme is one of grappling with “who” to become. (Paging Michelle Obama?) Perhaps Daisy’s daughter Alice says it best: “Something happened to me. At age nineteen I was on the verge of becoming a certain kind of person, and then I changed, and went in another direction.” Who are we? (Whenever I hear the phrase “who am I?” I automatically sing in my head, “I’m Jean Valjean!”)
At the same time I was re-reading The Stone Diaries, I was also greedily plowing through The Body Papers, a memoir by debut writer Grace Talusan. By the way, you know how The Body Papers got on my radar? Several online commenters to that aforementioned NYT piece about the “50 Best Memoirs” shared that Talusan’s book should have been considered.
This is not an Educated– or Becoming-style memoir. Whereas the aforementioned memoirs share amazing and out-of-the-ordinary stories, Talusan’s book tells about her life which on the one hand is a very sad recollection of obstacle after obstacle (noting that “obstacle” is an understatement in some instances) – yet I think a wide swath of the population can relate to at least one of the author’s hurdles. This is why, in my opinion, The Body Papers excels. Talusan has experienced a lot – abuse, shaky immigration status, health issues – but, just as Carol Shields mines Daisy’s life as a meditation on how to examine one’s existence, Talusan does the same with her own life.
The Body Papers is, in some way, a collection of sparse anecdotes. Not “sparse” in a “not enough information” kind of way, but rather in the sort of storytelling that provides facts underpinned by basic feeling and emotion. Talusan has experienced painful episodes, yet a bit of detachment comes across in her writing – which I think may be a hard-won approach that allows her to collate her recollections powerfully. We digest the book, appreciate her insights – and then perhaps reflect on what this means in our own life stories. Talusan, a Filipino-American who was born in the Philippines and opens her book by recounting some of her experiences in her “home country” after approximately 40 years away, tackles her entire life, framed by her “body” – how she looks, how she feels, how others perceive her based on what they see, and how her body has “failed” her.
Her book serves as a rumination on “who” she is as well as “who” others think she is. Talusan writes this, after a childhood realization that she is not like her peers: “I’d always wished that I would go to bed one thing and wake up in the morning something else, but this is not what I had hoped for. The self I longed for was very specific: brown hair, hazel eyes, or blonde hair, blue eyes. I wanted to look normal like my friends. I wanted to look like the girls in the books I read and the movies I watched.”
Readers hope Talusan finds strength in telling her own story, hopefully mirroring this anecdote: “’You ask too many questions for your own good,’ [Talusan’s mother] said…I remembered this threat in college when I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses. After Philomela is raped in the woods, her rapist cuts her tongue out so that she can’t talk about what he did to her. She weaves a tapestry that tells the story of her rape, setting in motion a revenge which results in the rapist, unknowingly, eating his young son. That is how dangerous a story is. My mother, now in her seventies, returned from a dental appointment recently and reported that she had a frenectomy. Her dentist snipped the band of tissue under her tongue. All this time she had been ‘tongue tied.’ One cut freed her tongue.” Telling our story – either orally or via a book – is powerful, even when it feels mundane.
Are our personalities mutable? Can we actually become a different person? I suppose we are the sum of all our parts – not just in an obvious “body part” sort of way, but also in every piece of our story and every person we come into contact with. In my opinion, it’s books like The Stone Diaries and The Body Papers that enable readers to reflect on this without hemming in their stories with overly specific episodes.
Not surprisingly, Shields had some thoughts about fiction and real life: “Novelists inevitably arrive at a recipe for their work so many parts observation and experience, combined with so many degrees of commitment to imagination. Stir well in a projected or real universe. Hope for a reader who understands what fiction really is and a critic who resists tying fictional gestures to autobiography.” I think that’s a graceful way of saying that novelists filter the world through their own worldview, but they may choose to alter that worldview based on how they know life to work. The Stone Diaries may not be non-fiction the way that The Body Papers is, but for readers, perhaps the stories found within may serve the same purpose.
So back to Gottlieb, who uses “bibliotherapy” with her patients: Fact or fiction…does it matter? They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder; perhaps when it comes to the books that bolster us, truth and comfort are in the eye of the reader. I’d argue that The Stone Diaries and The Body Papers offer us something accessible; maybe these are the types of books we should use as “bibliotherapy” when we are just trying to make sense of “who we are.” What these books are offering is assurance that others – whether fictitious or not – have done the same.
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