I have long been fascinated by writers who delve into emotions, tell the truth as they see it, and touch something universal through the specificity of their one life. These explorers who face the winds of fear or grief, who set their compass by human joys, who excavate the humdrum and reveal the extraordinary become touchstones in our lives. In their resolute willingness to sit day after day honing their words and refining their meaning, they provide wormholes into our humanity.
These days, the art of memoir sometimes gets lost amidst celebrity tell-alls or diminished by that dismissive moniker “misery memoir”; in the same way that informed personal and historical perspectives of identity might be dismissed as “politically correct” something precious is overlooked in this muddying of distinctly different waters.
A central challenge in writing memoir is establishing a distinct voice that captivates the reader. Imagine going into a bar for a quiet drink only to be cornered by an intoxicated individual who divulges endless personal details about his or her life. Memoir writers must skillfully pitch their story with enough detail and colour to build interest and with a tone that inspires trust.
When Jeanette Winterson published her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal in 2012, she covered some of the same ground as she had in her 1985 semi-autobiographical novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Despite this, her memoir feels fresh and insightful. There is a fascination in the way Winterson has re-worked her material, revealing what was true or fictional in the first book, and in the subtle shifts in perspective that a quarter-century must bring. But it is her narrative voice that pulls you in - the witty, observant, satirical voice established in the first several paragraphs:
WHEN MY MOTHER WAS ANGRY with me, which was often, she said, ‘The
Devil led us to the wrong crib.’
The image of Satan taking time off from the Cold War and McCarthyism to
visit Manchester in 1960 - purpose of visit: to deceive Mrs Winterson - has a
flamboyant theatricality to it. She was a flamboyant depressive; a woman who
kept a revolver in the duster drawer, and the bullets in a tin of Pledge. A woman
who stayed up all night baking cakes to avoid sleeping in the same bed as my
father. A woman with a prolapse, a thyroid condition, an enlarged heart, an
ulcerated leg that never healed, and two sets of false teeth - matt for everyday,
and pearlised set for ‘best’.
As readers, we know there is meat to her story, and we trust her to navigate us through its particularities. We sense that we will learn much, feel more and enter a world that is different from our own yet has points of intersection. Through her narrative skill, Winterson places us in intimate relationship with the young girl who seeks identity and meaning in a confusing, unpredictable world.
Other good reads: A Three Dog Life - Abigail Thomas; Autobiography of a Face - Lucy Grealy; The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros; Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place - Terry Tempest Williams; Truth and Beauty - Ann Patchett; The Woman Warrior - Maxine Hong Kingston.
© Julia Doggart 2014
© Julia Doggart 2014