Referencing Joan Didion's memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, Jay notes: "As a reader, I don’t question "whether Didion is indulging herself or exploiting her experience  because I’m too busy feeling the contradictions in Didion’s heart. The prose transfers them from hers to mine." I feel this transfer, too, when I read a story like A Three Dog Life, or Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, or a story like Amy Bloom’s Silver Water. These are the authors’ particular stories, but the pain of loss, the reverberating anxiety of chaos, the unresolvable aspects of madness and/or futility—these aren't singular moments. Most of us have lived one or all of these challenges, and empathy proverbially sets us apart from lizards. When they are artfully told, we hear others’ stories, and through their catharses or at least resolutions, we bond—nodding our heads, or wiping our tears, or jamming up the volume on that transgressive song we play when we’re in agony.
As much as I am drawn to surrealism, slipstream and metafiction, I find the current bias for disconnected or absurdist storytelling—the one where a hand the size of a VW reaches up out of the sand and picks the lice from a monkey’s head, or where all the characters lack mouths and march to Las Vegas, or where a neighbor is married to a giant or giantess (this one is an interestingly recurrent theme in submissions lately, emblematic of the current millennial psyche?) that problematically knocks over all the items at the local 7-11 when trying to purchase a soda–simply for its impenetrability, is actually the more “masturbatory” endeavor. Unless these stories connect to an existential narrative (and many of the ones I’ve seen in print and submitted ostensibly DON’T), then they are merely entertainment or escapism and--one of my pet peeve aversions--crafted with a self-awareness that renders them referential or pointless.
It’s not cool, these days, to send out “narrative” work, and maybe even less cool to relate that work to one’s self (memoir). But it’s not the genre that falters, it’s the writer. Jay suggests: “When readers complain that a nonfiction work is self-indulgent or dismiss the work as navel-gazing, it is perhaps true that the writer didn't reveal the self as divided and complex.” I wholeheartedly agree and argue that this failure is surely not genre specific (plug in “characters” for the word “self” in his quote), but that it is more easily denigrated by others when a writer offers self to the world. Jay says, “Do not call the writer selfish or self-indulgent. Call the writing mishandled.” Touche’.
I have recently published two memoir pieces, have a third forthcoming and a new one seeking markets. There was nothing more distant from my intention than self-indulgence, self-righteousness or narcissism. In fact, I wanted to reach outward perhaps more intentionally than I ever do with my fiction work. I wanted to ensure that I’m not ripping off my skin without purpose—it is always my hope that my story is merely representative of something that resides in all my fellow humans. Jay summarizes this notion of memoir as the most intimate sharing, when he asks us to “consider the navel: a scar on the abdomen caused by removing the umbilical cord from a newborn,” realizing that the rub is our recognition of once being separate and now being apart, always seeking to reconcile this break. We do this by gazing at that scar we all share, feeling it, knowing it, and telling stories that connect us in lieu of a physical chord.
**Jay Ponteri recently won the Oregon Book Award for his memoir Wedlocked. (see my glowing review in the Goodreads link here)