Thanks to Ms. J and others for sharing A Memoir Is Not a Status Update. Dani Shapiro wrote it for the New Yorker. It’s about memoir as a writing form, and about how Facebook may be affecting it, and it prompted several thoughts.
I wish I could write like Ms. Shapiro. Her sentences sing, they’re so well-structured and beautiful.
I do not accept the premise that Facebook limits or adversely affects writing. Economics may kill books, but if there is a eulogy for the book-writing industry, I don’t imagine FB will get a mention. (For a fine essay on the economics of the publishing industry and the battle with Amazon.com, here’s Amazon v. Hachette: What Would Orwell Think? by George Packer for the New Yorker.)
Writing offers many options, from the shortest text messages to the longest novels, and most everything in between. And, for sure, there is a content overlap between personal reporting on Facebook and the memoir. Both report on one’s on life, but that’s where it stops, and why I think Ms. Shapiro need not be too concerned.
I am in the midst of recounting my life. I’m motivated by several factors. First, I want for our daughter to have some context for one part of who she is. Second, it’s a memory exercise; I’m not getting any younger, and recalling this or that is a bit like testing myself against a small mountain. (Alright, alright, that’s a bad analogy, for I don’t hike, except for level 12 on the treadmill!) Finally, it’s an opportunity to better understand and appreciate who I am. Therapy on the cheap!
Facebook has presented no challenges in my endeavor. Instead, I’m limited by my mother’s admonition: “If you do not have something nice to say ….” (Whenever I hear that line, I think about Alice Roosevelt Longworth, President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter and the wife of Speaker of the House Nicholas Longworth. Her form of the admonition? “If you do not have something nice to say come sit by me,” and that is not how my mother’s statement ended.)
Now, “not nice things” are only a small part of the problem. They really represent a subset—not a perfect fit, but a subset is the best way I can say it—of the privacy limitations. My family and friends did not sign on for Mark Rubin Writes, or an autobiography, or any other forum for me to “spill everything.” And even if it’s only my daughter who ever reads it, others have not expected me to share fully and completely.
Sharing takes many forms. Kati Marton’s delightful review of Timeless: Love, Morgenthau, and Me by Lucinda Franks includes a recounting from the book of carnal knowledge in a hospital bathroom, a form of sharing that got the TMI label in the review. That is certainly one extreme part of sharing, but there’s also all of the “messy” in life, the matter that matters. It’s not TMI in the traditional sense, but it’s material that requires delicate treatment … and, often, silence. Frankly, I’ve always thought great stories are great because they include lots of reality, tough as it may be, and that it’s the thing that distinguishes the real writers—the big kids—from the rest of us.
So we’ll see what comes. In the meantime, for me the real takeaway from Ms. Shapiro’s fine essay is not that memoir is different from Facebook. That people share this and that, every day, does not diminish in any way the hard work—the really, really hard work—associated with sharing the most private and personal aspects of one’s life. (No one will mistake, ever, a Facebook post for Ms. Shapiro’s fine writing.) Instead, what matters is the fact that we live in times in which there’s room for writing on many levels. And that’s a good thing! A really good thing!!!