In The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), Lidia Yuknavitch chronicles the loss of a stillborn daughter, a lifelong love of swimming (as salvation), her relationship with an abusive father and silent mother, her sister, her husband and child. She shares so much of her life but she does it in a vibrant and willful way, at times inventing a new language, the only language that could possibly encompass her life story as it demands to be told. The Chronology of Water is a book about bodies and gender and grief and pain, but more than anything, it is an anti-memoir about finding joy, being joyful, about the mess of life.
My Foreign Cities (Liveright Publishing), out this month, is Elizabeth Scarboro’s memoir of her first marriage to a young man, Stephen, with cystic fibrosis, while she was also growing into herself as a person, as a woman. My Foreign Cities is the story of a young woman making the choice to love a man with not enough life to live, even if she was unable to realize the whole of what she was choosing. The memoir is deeply moving, particularly because the writing, the story being told, is not overly sentimental in the way it might have been in the hands of a lesser writer. My Foreign Cities is, in its way, and much like The Chronology of Water, a book about the body, the impossible frailty of it, how love enables us to do the seemingly impossible, and also, about finding joy in the face of overwhelming grief.
My Foreign Cities has been selected by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the Top Ten Memoirs of Spring. Scarboro is also the author of two novels for children, and her work has appeared most recently in the Bellevue Literary Review. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.
Yuknavitch is the author of the novel Dora: A Headcase, a modern farce, and The Chronology of Water. She writes and teaches and loves and mothers in Portland, Oregon, and her essay “Explicit Violence” appears in the anthology, Get Out of My Crotch, from Cherry Bomb Books, co-edited by Kim Wyatt and Rumpus columnist Sari Botton.
In recent years, as I’ve read more memoirs, I have struggled with how to talk about memoir critically, how to separate form from content. Both Yuknavitch and Scarboro, whose books echo each other in interesting ways, were willing to talk with me about this question of what to do with memoir, and much more.
The Rumpus: Is memoir a genre we can consider critically? How do we begin to approach such a thing given that memoirs so often expose such intimate things from a person’s life?
Lidia Yuknavitch: The question you ask is puzzling. Though I consider The Chronology of Water to be an anti-memoir for very precise reasons, it is an art form, and thus as open to “critique” as any other art form. Memoir has a form, formal strategies, issues of composition and craft, style, structure, all the elements of fiction or nonfiction or painting or music or what have you.
Your question is itching at the skin of CONTENT. Memoirs have at their heart a content that “happened” to someone in real life. Is that what you are itching at in your question, so that if you are a reviewer or you are writing a critique you might feel as if you are stepping on someone’s actual face?
Rumpus: Yes, that’s definitely where I am struggling. Oftentimes when I am reading a memoir that feels intimate, that shares someone’s difficult personal history, I don’t know how to separate content from how the content is communicated.
Yuknavitch: In both Liz’s excellent book My Foreign Cities and in my anti-memoir The Chronology of Water, we are troping life and experience. We are bringing literary practices to memory and experience, and giving literary shape to them (or anti-shape, as is the case with COW—shapes against the grain of the inherited conventions). On a spectrum of literary productions, memoir is just another form. If the person doing the reviewing or critiquing was ill-educated about literary forms, they could write something dunderheaded about the author or their life (I’ve seen these and barfed at them), but anyone who is well-practiced and educated in literature—why would they leave that at the door when entering memoir?
Fiction and poetry expose intimate things from a person’s life every bit as much as memoir does, and sometimes more. I don’t quite see or live the distinction you are making about the forms. Poetry, for example, goes so deeply into the space between corporeal affect and deep emotion (even primal in some cases) that, as Emily Dickinson said, it can blow the top of your head off. Poetic language is sometimes misunderstood as “abstract” when in reality, it’s precise—precisely the language of emotions and the body. Underneath the forms of fiction and poetry, you can bet your ass the ground comes from someone’s actual life experience.
When I was reading My Foreign Cities I felt a life story, yes, but I also felt story. The practice of storytelling. The practice of employing metaphor and image and composition and linguistic choices to move the reader through the content. One thing about humans is that we all have them—life stories. We live by and through them. But writers of memoir are particularly good at bringing literary strategies and form to experience (at least the good ones are). The thing that turned me inside out in My Foreign Cities is that the “plot” and the “telos” of the story exploded ordinary expectations. The convention of the coming-of-age story and the love story were literally abandoned—because they had to be—and a new kind of coming-of-age and love story emerged that required a different kind of telling the story.
Elizabeth Scarboro: I never read memoirs until I decided to try to write one. After reading at least fifty, my first response is that they can and need to be critiqued. That’s easy for me to say in the privacy of my own home, where the writers of the memoirs I’ve read will never hear or read my reactions to their work. But I do feel memoirs should be held to high standards (and their authors would want that), even if they are different standards – even if what we want from a memoir is different than what we want from a novel, in the same way that what we want from a documentary film might be different than what we want from another kind of movie.
Maybe one way is to think about how the writer has crafted the story, rather than the life out of which the story has been carved. I’m always interested in structure, because it’s hard to move a story forward and deepen it at the same time, and both are required in memoir. The balance between momentum and reflection seems key. And also the writer’s relationship with his/her narrated self. I loved This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff because I felt like he got that right—he was affectionate but critical, clear-eyed about who he’d been as a boy, and it made me love his character and get bound up in what might happen to him.
It might be more relaxing to critique memoir when you think about everything the writer has left out of the book. It’s the writer’s job to reveal the right intimate details, and to think hard about what not to put in as well as what to include. An intimate detail that might feel awkward to address as a reader has already been sifted through, shaped, written and rewritten many times, so by the time it’s in your hands the writer probably has some distance from it.
I agree with Lidia about the forms being less distinct than they’re made out to be currently. I think about a book like So Long, See you Tomorrow by William Maxwell, which might be billed as a memoir today, but in 1979 was allowed to exist as “a novel based on fact.” The story in memoir runs the way story runs in a novel—underneath the surface, using the plot to bring physical shape to what the writer wants to explore.
In my memoir, I wanted to write about the experience of youth and mortality colliding. I tried writing it fictionally and it didn’t work, so I settled on memoir. Halfway through I thought it would be better as a collection of essays but I was too far-gone. But if a writer can find a form that allows the entire ocean of the story they want to tell in, it’s magic. Which was how The Chronology of Water felt to me. Lidia somehow found a form (and I’d love to know how she did it!) that makes room for the messiness and complexity of experience and memory. I know she considers COW to be an anti-memoir, and I don’t want to step on her toes, but the genre sure could use to include it a straight-up memoir, to crack open the formal possibilities.
Yuknavitch: The WRITER of memoir gets incoming weirdness in very odd ways. I was recently talking to a memoir writer whose work just went meteoric—but some of the comments and communications and gestures she gets in the wake of that success are stunningly and atrociously over-personal, as if suddenly people feel like they know her and her life intimately, and have permission to transgress all her “life” boundaries. To a certain extent that happens with all kinds of successful writers and artists and celebrities, but there is also something about the form of memoir that creates an eerie reader space of intimacy that is only “real” in the space of the text.
The memoir as a somewhat indistinct form is absolutely true. So many of the memoirs I’ve read, and the ones I have gravitated toward most, somehow upend what I expect from memoir and the project seems greater than just the exposition of a life.
Rumpus: Lidia, what you note about the ways people comment on memoir, the liberties they take, is something that has been on my mind as well. Do you ever worry, both of you, about how you expose yourself and about how people may feel entitled when they encroach upon your life simply because they’ve read what you choose to tell them about your life?
Scarboro: I do think about it, but my book hasn’t come out yet so right now I’m in the stage of just hoping for a few readers. When I was still working on it, and getting help from several astute readers, I remember having a hard time when they expressed judgment about the more difficult feelings I articulated in the book. I wrote about my first husband Stephen’s addiction to painkillers, and got the general response of, Why did it bother you, and why couldn’t you just give him a break, since he was sick? Which at first made me impatient and defensive, but when I heard it a few times from people I respected, I realized I needed to address that question in the story, to explore it. I also wrote about the ways he changed after the transplant, some of which really frustrated me, and I got the question, “Couldn’t you just appreciate that he was finally breathing well, and accept and even enjoy his new qualities?” This also ended up giving me a jumping-off point. Now that the book is finished, and I’ve explored the material as much as I want to publicly, I think those same kinds of comments will be much more painful to hear.
Readers might approach me with their own stories of illness and grief and addiction and complicated second loves. That feels all right to me, but I can imagine ways it which it could get weird. I do like when it happens in life—I’d rather talk about death at a party than make small talk. And since these subjects are taboo in our culture, I’m glad to have them out in the open. I always appreciated strangers and acquaintances who were willing to speak about them with me while I was living them out.
Rumpus: I think very carefully about how much I expose of myself in my essays because implied intimacy with strangers is difficult for me to make sense of. I don’t want people to assume they know me because they know of a few experiences I have shared from my life. I don’t want to put too much of myself out there and leave nothing for myself. At the same time, I am sharing those experiences for a reason and it feels important to talk about certain experiences that we tend to keep to ourselves. It’s all rather fraught. How did both of you, in writing your (anti-)memoirs, decide on what to include and what to leave out? How did you begin to shape the stories of your lives?
Scarboro: I started with a much wider lens. I ended up focusing narrowly on my relationship with Stephen, and our relationships with CF [cystic fibrosis]. I found I could only handle the three of us fully—maybe this wouldn’t have been true if this were my fifth book, or if it were fiction, but I felt overwhelmed when I tried to follow threads that involved other people who were important to our story. In order to capture a parent, or sibling, or friend, it would require a hundred pages to give him or her the depth and nuance required. People appear, but my relationships with them aren’t fully realized. I also cut lots of parts of the illness, and hospital trips, letting only a few stand for many.
The hardest part of the story to leave out was a close friend’s sudden death. My friend Steve died in a car crash, and his death was life-altering for both Stephen and me. I still miss him, and think about life differently because he’s not here. Originally this was an integral part of the book. But readers kept saying it was too much. It came a year after Stephen’s transplant, and a week after my dad’s near-fatal bike crash, and less than a year before Stephen died. Of course in life it was too much, too, so I tried to write it that way—stepping out of the narrative. But eventually it just felt too large to be held by the story that I was writing. It deserved its own book. Or to not be a book at all—to never have happened. I couldn’t figure out how to do it right.
People assume that when you’re writing a memoir, you’re making peace with spilling your guts. But it doesn’t feel like that to me. You’re definitely revealing yourself in a way you wouldn’t to an acquaintance, or in some moments, even a very close friend. But you’re in control of every aspect of the revealing.
Yuknavitch: This is what happened to me while I was writing COW. Right about page fifty or so, I was hit by lightning. I nearly fell out of my chair. I felt a ZAP of electricity I’m pretty sure was the collective unconscious. I realized two things: one, I wasn’t writing a memoir. I was writing a WEmoir, meaning, the ONLY reason to keep writing would be if even one other person in the world felt less crazy, alone, messed up, wrong, ugly, backwards, invisible after they read it. I got this weird sort of creative “surge” that pushed me to “tell” beyond the fears I had about telling, fears about the form itself and how it gets trashed (not fancy literary enough, too narcissistic), fears about humans related to me or close to me reading it, fears about my weird formal choices, fears about mean things people could say to me.
When someone says something dunderheaded to me about the material, it’s usually a big neon sign revealing their own damage or ignorance, so my compassion kicks in.
I don’t think I exposed myself (but I love the way that sounds). What I exposed, or what I HOPE I exposed, are the limits of a narrow kind of storytelling that validates some people and not others, and the limits of a narrow kind of identity formation that validates some people and not others, and the limits of a narrow kind of writing and reading that validates some people and not others. I set out then to call the tribe—misfits, nerds, fuck-ups, loners, sad people, drunk people, people who got in trouble or struggled—maybe all of us. I decided to let the story be about both the mess and the grandeur.
Like Liz, I had to be judicious about what to bring in and what to leave out. I had a superb editor in Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books—without a doubt the most amazing collaboration I’ll see in my writerly life—so that is very important. But how I decided what to follow as a writer had to do with discovering the “through-line” of my own story. The through-line was this: this is the story of a girl who had to swim back through her own life to resuscitate a self. Anything that did not serve THAT story is for another book.
As far as being territorial about one’s own life, that’s a mistake for ANY writer. All writers everywhere, in every genre, are drawing from their life and the lives of those around them for “material.” Memoirs just make transparent and even amplify that activity.
I LOVE what Liz says when she says, “I think people assume that when you’re writing memoir, you’re making peace with spilling your guts. But it doesn’t feel like that to me.” The best memoirs don’t spill the writer’s guts. The best memoirs—like This Boy’s Life, or Crazy Brave [by Joy Harjo], for instance—bring you through a private river of storytelling that joins a major ocean of human struggle and joy. The act of enunciation—the forms and strategies of storytelling—are every bit as literarily serious as they are in poetry or other prose forms.
Rumpus: What do you look for in a memoir? What stands out to you as “good?”
Yuknavitch: I look for the moment(s) in the story where the writer risked abandoning the glory of the self in favor of the possible relationship with an other. I don’t ever let the market tell me what a memoir is. The first best memoir I ever read was Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. See what I mean? I also thought of The Lover by Marguerite Duras as a memoir. Most of Carole Maso’s books and Kathy Acker’s novels read as memoirs to me. Paris Spleen by Baudelaire. On the Road by Kerouac.
You can see how my memoir turned out different.
But of the variety everybody else likes too, Mary Karr seems to be understood as the Gold Standard (I learned that way back from Andrei Codrescu, who told me to cut one-third of COW out…ha), but I like Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Cool For You by Eileen Myles, Yarn by Kioko Mori, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and The Stuff of Life by Karen Karbo better… Hell, I even liked Just Kids by Patti Smith, though the writing wasn’t artful. And of course there’s my comrade-of-the-heart Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which pretty much killed.
Scarboro: I agree with Lidia that good memoirs, and I love the way she puts this, “abandon the glory of the self in favor of the possible relation with another.” The memoirs I love best find a way to be deep and wide, even as they are very particular. I need the feeling that the writer isn’t just relaying a story, but is searching to understand it. I’m moved by stories where I can feel the undertow of the writer’s struggle to make sense of what’s happened, to find honest words. A few memoirs I’ve loved are Three Dog Night by Abigail Thomas, Falling Through The Earth by Danielle Trussoni, Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje, and The Mercy Papers by my own comrade-of-heart Robin Romm.
Yuknavitch: One thing I very much admired and felt awe about in your book was your insistence on writing about relationships differently (thank you, thank you, thank you) than the oddly linear plot lines we’ve inherited, available to us as women writers. I’d love to know what you think about that?
Scarboro: I’m not sure how intentional it was, but I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about that linear narrative so maybe that’s how it came about. Or maybe it was intentional. I made certain choices—like not including a wedding scene—because I felt like it would be expected, especially from a woman writer, and of course that made me not want to do it. But mainly I wanted to stay as close as possible to the particulars of the relationship I lived out, to articulate it as best as I could, which meant being wary of falling back on a structure that didn’t have much to do with the way I lived.
I was writing not only about young love (ugh!), but love in the face of illness (cue an awful movie), so the only way I could do it was to fight any urge to be sentimental or to romanticize it. Hopefully I succeeded at that. I’ve never liked love stories—or, at least, ones with that narrow plot. I am always suspicious of them in books and impatient with them in movies. I just want a life story. When my editor told me she wanted to describe my book as a love story, I said, “Could it be a love story for the love-story-averse?” I know she means love story in a broader sense, but as someone who rarely picks love stories up off the book table, I’m hoping the other love-story-averse readers out there won’t shrink away from my book the way I shrink away from Julia Roberts movies.
Yuknavitch: I get kind of tired of the “But it’s your life!” attitude about memoir. Do YOU? I wrote. I engaged in artistic production. I made a piece of art. Why the preciousness or mystical unicorns around “memoir”? I’m curious how you feel about it just now.
Scarboro: In reviews of memoirs, reviewers write more about the content and less about the form, than they do, say, in reviewing fiction. I find this really frustrating. The life itself isn’t up for review—the book is. I hate hearing reviewers talk about what a crazy life someone led, or how brave they were. It’s not the life that’s being evaluated, it’s the story, and the way the story is told. Just as with fiction, you could give two writers the same circumstances to write about, and come out with very different narratives.
Rumpus: So many of the memoirs I’ve read, and the ones I have gravitated toward most, somehow upend what I expect from memoir; the project seems greater than just the exposition of a life.
Scarboro: When I found out my book was being published I didn’t know that books commonly have the subtitles of “a memoir” or “a novel” so that they can be distinguished for selling purposes. I wanted the title of my book to appear on its own, without the subtitle, but I couldn’t get away with it. I remember when I worked in a bookstore, it was before most had separate shelves for memoirs. At that time (at least at that particular store) memoirs were included all over the place—some in biography, some in with the fiction, some in with feminist studies, etc. Recently, I visited a bookstore that sells new and used books, and for the used section, the memoirs were shelved with fiction. This made me happy. The genre of any book is secondary to the story the author is telling—being the best vehicle that the author can find. I’m the kind of reader who would probably be happiest if all the books at the bookstore were shelved together, so I could stumble across a great book on physics I’d never pick up otherwise.
Rumpus: What are some strategies you use to bring literary shape to your experiences?
Yuknavitch: Most of my formal choices are a combination of everything I learned about form—semiotics, linguistics, and the history of style experimentations tethered to literary movements (formalism, deconstruction, modernism, and postmodernism), and the basic principal of breaking every rule I ever learned from a patriarchal writing tradition that never included my body or experience, and thus has nothing to offer me in terms of representation.
I work from the body—I try to develop a language of the body. I’ve invented a term I call “corporeal writing” around that idea. I love teaching and collaborating around this idea, because no new breakthrough in literature ever happened because everyone was doing what was already there.
With COW, specifically, I was also interested in literally inventing a language that corresponded to the way memory works—specifically in terms of biochemistry and neuroscience. I shaped the words and sentences and fragments according to what I understand about memory. I shaped them around what’s true about the body.
Scarboro: Lidia might kill me here, but I had an aversion to the one literary theory course I attempted in college, so much so that I ruled out majoring in English. But that may have been my bad luck with a particular professor. In any case, I think my strategies come less from an understanding of the larger context and more from the accumulation of all the small things I’ve absorbed as I read—book by book—all the possibilities out there that wouldn’t have occurred to me on my own, whether I love them or run from them screaming.
But it’s interesting, because while we may have come to it differently, what Lidia says, about both memory and the body, speaks to me. Several readers have remarked that MFC is filled with physicality, and I didn’t realize this so much while I was writing, but I see it, looking back. I wanted to get as close as I could to the whole of my experience, and to be as honest as I could. And when I tried to do that, I found myself staying close to visceral memory, to everything that had no words. And then I had to find the words. Many words fell short and got thrown out. (Sometimes I feel disheartened thinking about how many pages I’ve written that are in the trash, but a friend made the analogy to being a musician—hours of practice that go into the final product, but aren’t the product itself—and I like that).
In terms of shaping my experience for the narrative, I was interested in finding a way to convey the underlying feeling, the personal reality, of the life I was leading, rather than conveying the details of the life itself. I don’t know if that makes sense. When I was leading that life, it was always hard to explain that inside that life it felt different than you might think it would, with death always right there in the room. So it was important to me that the book felt like the life, because that was part of what I was trying to write about—to complicate the picture we have—of what kind of life is worth living, or love is worth having.
Yuknavitch: For the record—and this is totally true—I think
The reason I loved theory was that I read all
The material as if they were novels—and then
I placed the authors in my head as if they were
In the novels—Foucault was a suave snappy
Dresser. Kristeva swam naked in moonlight.
Derrida had the best hair and smoked opium
Rumpus: How, if at all, do you try to “crack open the formal possibilities” in your writing?
Scarboro: I love thinking about form when I read, but in my own writing I love the idea of experimenting with it more than I actually do it. Though I did try in my memoir to not tether myself to the expectation that I’d explore the story only through scenes. There were places I knew I needed a different way to express what I needed to express, or where I’d find myself interested in a particular reflective path, and I’d go where it took me. Lately I’ve been writing essays, and I realize how much I enjoy following the paths that open up unexpectedly in them. Somehow it’s been more natural for me to break open formal constraints, writing essays, than it has been in other genres.
Yuknavitch: I don’t have much interest in writing if there are not opportunities to crack open the inherited forms. The writing I love to read most does this as well. I’m a form junkie. One path I’ve used a lot is to deeply and thoughtfully consider a trope or a tradition, and then set about taking it apart—but only in the service of a character or story that deserves it. Another path I often employ is to put form into “play”— to set it free from its ordinary constraints and let it be free-floating and broken-apart and rearranged. To be honest, we live in an exciting time where form is concerned. My sincerest hope is that more people will notice this and agree to play and invent—the only way to not succumb to the complacency and market-driven schlock of the present tense is to continually interrogate it from the inside out.