books and reading · family · Kindle

Memoir Rant


Yeah, it’s ironic that a person who was (emphasis on was) writing a memoir actually doesn’t like reading memoirs. I guess I read one too many bad memoirs and trust me, there are lots of them. I will read just about anything until completion but there are so many memoirs I started and put down QUICKLY. I’ve found that I’m not a big fan of the gimmicky ones where someone decides to stop or start doing something for a year and I’m also not a fan of…well, memoirs. I prefer good old-fashioned fiction, sometimes with a twist of fantasy, a dash of vampires, true love or whatever makes me want to send several HEAVY copies to family members in Santo Domingo.

Someone told me that the parts in my now deceased (don’t ask, won’t tell) memoir where I talked about my childhood were riveting. Someone else more important told me to cut them all out because “child abuse memoirs had been done to death.” Someone else said it was “too Dominican.” So, really, has anyone else read a book where a Dominican-American girl runs away from home, kidnaps her sisters, fights her mother for custody and wins, then decides to convert to Judaism and falls in love and then marries a rabbinical student? Anybody? Seen it on the shelf? Anyone?

Memoir is so over that The New Yorker devoted an endless piece (okay, all The New Yorker pieces seem long after gobbling up soundbites in Time and Entertainment Weekly) to why it’s soooo over: BUT ENOUGH ABOUT ME: What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? It all started with St. Augustine (good memoir, available on Kindle even) and ended with…everyone who Oprah featured on her show who later confessed their memoir was less than truthful or incredibly fictional (bad memoir). Of course, it ends with Oprah. Everyone who really believed I could write a great book said that I had to promise to take them on Oprah when she “discovered” me.
I met a writer recently who said that she was begging off of speaking engagements to focus on her book. Real writers know that writing a book, any book, is all-consuming. Writing belies any schedule because even when you find that you’ve put in the hours you promised, you still find yourself climbing out of the shower, soaking wet to jot down your latest innovation. G-d forbid you finish the shower and realize your idea went down the drain.
When you tell non-writers that you are writing a book, they blink back at you as if you’ve said you collect My Little Pony Stickers for a living (I’m not judging) and you are not really a person unless you have a publisher…or even if you do. Writers are not people, by which they mean people who make lots and lots of money or who have been “discovered” by Oprah and then gone on to make lots and lots of money.
Thankfully, I try to take all this with a grain of Kosher salt. When I read the reviews for people’s memoirs, I look for the indictments critics like to throw around: whiny, self-indulgent, too many tics, woe-is-me and a new one “middle-class woman who needs more real problems but then she’d just write about those.” Luckily, I ignored most of the reviews for Dani Shapiro’s new book, Devotion. I did what I find myself doing all the time whether or not I like a review, I go to Amazon.com, see if it’s available for Kindle and zap a “Sample” reading from the book into my Kindle. Based on that I decide whether a book is “Kindle-worthy,” bookshelf-worthy, only library-loan-worthy, etc. Yes, I have been converted into the cult of Kindle (and everything that doesn’t make the Kindle-worthy cut gets read on regular old paper on Shabbat).
I read the “Sample” for Shapiro’s book and I didn’t hesitate to click “Buy Now” at the end. I don’t know very much about middle-class anybody but I know a little about writing, a little bit about Judaism and a lot about searching for spirituality in the midst of everything mundane. Shapiro, a novelist whose books I’ve never read, grew up Orthodox, went “off-the-derech” (which to Orthodox people means going in any direction away from Orthodoxy) and finds her heart clenching when she realizes her young son can’t identify a mezuzah.
Now it’s time to go finish my (her) book.
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6 thoughts on “Memoir Rant

  1. For those with Asperger syndrome, the memoir has become a popular genre with books like John Elder Robinson’s Look Me in the Eye as good example. This serves as a means to justify the alternative worldview at the heart of Asperger syndrome. The Asperger person, through the memoir, allows us into his head so that we can see that there is a real person there. Furthermore, being an Asperger means living with a mind versus world dichotomy. You are aware that from an early age that you are a mind that does not fit with the rest of the world so you focus a lot of attention on this mind as it comes up against this wall of every other mind. This makes Aspergers sound highly egotistical, but it is also a useful motivation for a memoir.

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  2. Izgad, my sister has Asperger's and I always enjoy hearing your point-of-view on what it's like living with it.

    Chaviva, the post was already so long but I think as a convert, I could relate to someone struggling with spiritually and trying to figure out where they fit. Even if in this case, the author left Orthodoxy I could relate to her struggles.

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  3. Izgad, my sister has Asperger's and I always enjoy hearing your point-of-view on what it's like living with it.

    Chaviva, the post was already so long but I didn't add that I think as a convert, I could relate to someone struggling with spiritually as Dani Shapiro does in “Devotion” and trying to figure out where they fit. Even if in this case, the author left Orthodoxy I could relate to her struggles.

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  4. Glad to know that I am read and appreciated. (How does one earn a link in this blog hit score game? :p)

    On the reverse side I find that I relate well to converts and BTs. As an Asperger I am the perpetual outsider trying to be accepted by the establishment and trying to understand all the various social rituals that everyone else takes for granted, but make no sense to me.

    (This probably crosses the line into flattery. Need to make a greater effort to be self righteous and insulting. :p)

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  5. Izgad, my sister and I spend all the time talking about this issue. The feeling of being an outsider. The feeling of not understanding the bizarre social rituals around us. For me, I think on top of just the conversion issue, there's issues of class and race and well, having been “raised by wolves.”

    What I love about so many of readers is how we manage to connect on this issue of feeling like a stranger in a strange land, whether it's my readers who are disabled by chronic pain or have converted or find themselves in a situation where they are a minority within a minority because of race, ethnicity of sexuality.

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