intermission: a word about memoirs

2.3.10

Memoirs have gotten a bad reputation.

Ever since I decided that I want to be a big recognized writer I have stumbled upon the misfortune that falls upon memoirs. I’ve learned that memoirists are by far the greatest types of writers at conferences trying to pitch their work. I’ve learned agents and publishers are not interested, unless you are, of course, famous. Or have had some outrageous experience like giving birth alone in a coal mine after escaping the government for not paying your taxes.

And I have learned that agents are super busy and important people and hopeful writers get rejected many, many, many times.

A few Pinocchios have inevitably tarnished the craft of memoir with their wooden attempts at life. Their exaggerations and lies and need for the wrong kind of attention have cast a shadow, a darkness that makes folks skittish, cautious and guarded. But despite the few who choose to embellish, there are plenty who write in order to share, heal, grow, laugh, identify, shout and to do.

Like personal blogs and reality television, some memoirs are appalling while others do a good job of highlighting human emotions and experiences. It’s not for everybody, like preferences in music; we memoirists I’m afraid are not the classical music of our day. But a reinvention of 80s rock – spandex tight, shoulder pad excessive and neon bright.

The inherit problems when writing true stories is there does not appear to be any structure to the story because life is ongoing - no bread to hold the sandwich filling, my Panini is either too thick or too thin and the complimentary pickle spear has flaccid tendencies. We have to figure out how to edit the life we are currently living. Sloppy writing spills over all writing types and styles, it’s just with memoir we’re either too forgiving or too harsh.

The other problem is a lot of memoirs are too depressing. I’ve put down many books both fiction and non-fiction that went on and on about all the horrifying and disgusting events that happened to the main character. Fascination turns into disgust. And if the story is too sensational, too extreme it can become un-relatable, you lose the human condition for the sake of a dazzling set of circumstances. It’s about the wedding ring and not the marriage.

But we hopefully understand that all stories originate from life and we’ll judge this relatively new genre or twist on personal essay as an reflection of the human condition now, like musical and art history.

Modern memoirs I have decided are recognized rites of passage. I lost weight. I survived a divorce. I left that cult. I lived through this (i.e. drug abuse, war, childhood) tragedy. Intuitively readers are drawn to the human experience of transformation through tragedy or notoriety. We are searching for meaning in our sometimes mundane and bizarre existence. Modern society has left ‘everyday people’ with the remaining remnants of rituals in the form of birthdays, weddings and graduations, all of which have come to mean less and less as we get older.

I think because a certain kind of rhythm is missing to the beat of our lives, we are nourished by experiencing the “celebrated” transformations of others. We hunger for reality just as much as we crave fantasy. It is reassuring to know that someone out there has had similar thoughts and experiences. (Hey, I’m not that weird!) We want to be unique but we also want to be part of the gang.

All this drama surrounding memoirs means I have to figure out another way into the seemingly impenetrable fortress that is the publishing world. I have to prove that my journey, my rite of passage will have meaning for others too and that I’m cool enough to enter the exclusive club or that I will at the very least hold some entertainment value on the dance floor. I must find another way into the building, through the backdoor perhaps or - through a window.

***

When I was in grade school, around the third or fourth grade my mother became comfortable leaving Larry and I at home alone. She was a single mother who had to work and we didn’t know any better. So it seems fitting that I’m part of the latchkey generation but ironically my mother neglected to leave the house key behind.

After we would arrive home from school, my brother would relieve himself on the front lawn. Apparently our one mile walk from Mililani Waena Elementary School to Anania Circle was a son-of-a – seriously folks it’s cruel to ask kindergartners to hold it. Our townhouse was surrounded by a tall stone wall and fence so no one ever saw him. I believe. I hope.

As I listened to his urine hit the grassy lawn, I looked the other away so I surveyed the house and cursed the fact that my mom forgot again to leave the key somewhere for us to find. I walked around to the back of the house to see if she left the sliding glass door unlocked by accident. Or the kitchen door – or the front door for that matter.

Simply waiting for our mom to come home was a gamble because she would not always arrive any time soon. Sometimes we would hear the garage door open, see my mom pull up and rejoice in our salvation. Other times we would have to sit outside in the warm Hawaiian sun and try not to feel our suffering. But after awhile, I became frustrated with our predicament and learned to break into the house.

One of the characteristics of houses in Hawaii is the frosted glass horizontal window slats. To the left of the front door were two windows for the laundry room. When those window slats were open slightly, I would pop them open enough so I could wiggle the glass slats up and out. I had to use a chair to stand on because the windows were out of my reach. It was tiring work. You had to be careful not to break the glass then lean the long slats against the house upon removal.

Having created enough of an opening, I could squeeze through and land on to the washer and dryer. It wasn’t always a pretty landing. A laundry basket sitting on top of the washer or a stack of towels would sometimes get in the way. But it didn’t matter. I was in. Next I would jump on to the floor and open the front door.

Through the window it is.

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