Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Memoir as Linked Short Stories or Blog Pieces

In addition to slogging through Michener's The Source for my book club meeting in 6 days, I've also been reading Lauren F. Winner's Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  For a traditional review, see this post on my theology blog.  In today's post here, I want to consider the memoir as linked short stories.

Let me first offer a disclaimer.  I tend not to read widely in the genre of the modern memoir.  I first became aware of them back in the 90's when every whiny 20-something seemed to be writing their life's story--and frankly, once you've read one memoir of addiction or first job crisis or break-up, there's not much point in reading them all.  At first, I loved the idea that a memoirist could look at a smaller slice of life than someone writing autobiography.  But I quickly became bored with the lives that most people discussed.

Maybe it goes back to my love of science fiction.  Why stick to the world of reality when our imaginations offer so many other possibilities?  But the sales of memoirs of all sorts remind me that my preference is a minority view right now.

There's one major exception to my memoir refusal:  women writing about their spiritual experiences.  The works of Kathleen Norris, Nora Gallagher, Anne Lamott, and Lauren F. Winner have won me over to the idea of a memoir.  Through the works of those women and many others, I've found my life enriched in all sorts of ways.  Lately I've noticed that memoirs being written have more in common with linked short stories than they do with a traditional narrative that travels from beginning to middle to end.

In my younger days, I'd have adopted a feminist explanation that revolved around wombs and circles.  But in my tired midlife, I'm wondering about the circling narrative and what it says about our lives.  I'm also wondering if others have seen this phenomena in other memoirs that they've been reading.

Let me explain what I mean, using Winner's latest work as an example.  Her book explores the life of a woman who has made her living as a professional Christian of sorts who has a bit of a mid-faith crisis. You may remember Winner from her past books, most famously Girl Meets God, the story of her conversion to Judaism and then her conversion to Christianity, all before the age of 23, if my memory serves. Winner went on to write more books, to be a contributor to many Christian magazines, and to get a Ph.D. in History.

She also got married at the same time that her mother died and quickly felt unsettled in the marriage. She wrestled with Christian teachings on divorce. Perhaps more important, she began to feel a shift in her relationship with God. She had been a Christian who had a running discussion with God, and now she didn't feel like doing it anymore. This book chronicles her passage through this post-divorce, mid-faith time.

Instead of structuring her book in a traditional way, the book approaches the subject in a variety of ways.  She discusses the idea of middle ground with an essay on the middle tense in several languages, none of them English.  She talks about middle tints in painting.  She talks about the middles in narrative.

She weaves these essays around other essays that talk about Christian seasons, primarily Lent, and a Jewish holiday or two.  She has several short essays connected by their exploration of the Eucharist.  She talks about pilgrimages to Emily Dickinson's house and to a bookshop.

All of these essays are linked together, some more loosely than others, by their connections to the theme of the book.  Technically, they are stand-alone creations; the reader could dip in and out and read an essay from the back and then skip back to the front.  But they're more rewarding when read as a whole.

Liked some linked short story collections, there's a central narrator throughout, along with secondary characters.  Could a memoir work if the narrative voice shifted from character to character?  Probably, but no memoirists who even attempt this feat come to mind.

Unlike many religious memoirs, Winner's story doesn't rigidly follow a calendar or liturgical year--like, say, Nora Gallagher's Things Seen and Unseen does.  Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis does contain essays rooted in the calendar, liturgical, or academic year, but again, the book circles in and under and through them, instead of travelling in a straight line.

The book reminds me of the early works of Kathleen Norris.  For example, her book The Cloister Walk loosely follows her time in a monastery, but it takes all sorts of interesting side trips and digressions and diversions. 

I could argue that argue the books like The Cloister Walk and Still:  Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis read more like a collection of quality blog posts than traditional memoirs.  To my knowledge, neither Norris nor Winner blog, but that shouldn't prevent those of us who do from thinking about our blog posts and how they fit together.

The very nature of a blog gives us a structure.  Add to that structure the fact that many of us circle back to connected topics in a variety of ways, and I imagine that many of us have some very interesting book manuscripts lurking in our blogs.

I've thought of my blogs as a source for essays and a repository for a variety of future inspirations.  It's only been lately that I've begun to think of my blogs as the rough draft of a book--or a variety of books!

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