I’m feeling VERY inspired. On Friday night my book club discussed the memoir Motion of the Ocean: 1 Small Boat, 2 Average Lovers, and a Woman’s Search for the Meaning of Wife by Janna Cawrse Esarey. And because a woman in our book club knows a woman that knows Janna, we got to Skype with the Seattle-based author as part of our discussion, a first for our book club (big thanks for Carolyn for doing the work to make it happen). After a little fuss, it actually worked!
One big issue on my mind after reading the book is how Janna’s family felt about her writing so frankly about them. In the first chapter of her book, she writes about the fact that her husband was an “asshole” when they first started dating. And there is a lot more content later about other jerky things he did over the two year sail. Brutally honest. When we asked what her husband thought of her honesty, she said she could tell anyone who asked that “he’s a strong mutherf@$#er” so he doesn’t mind.
Janna was also brutally honest about her own short comings. She talks about how scattered and flaky she is, about her ongoing struggle with depression, about her painful ignorance as a sailor on a 17,000 mile trip aboard an aging 39’ sailboat, and about her role in their dating and marital strife.
But the honesty is part of what made it really good, especially in this day and age of reality TV (at least those of us willing to admit we watch it). These days we’re so conditioned to seeing the real side life (however exaggerated), exercising restraint has become synonymous with boring or outdated.
I worry about how my children will feel in 10, 20, and 30 years about what I’ve written about their “special needs” (which will probably be as un-PC as the N-word by the time we get there). The mother of my biological girls also worries about the same for our girls, now entering their adolescence. It’s a fascinating philosophical question. Many a family has been broken by what a family member has written about them.
What also made the book good was her voice. When I was reading her work, I felt like I was sitting across the table listening, rather than reading at midnight in the bathtub. I felt like I was one of her cherished girlfriends, like I was on the boat with her and her husband feeling the tension that you could slice with a knife, like I was riding the folding bike around the tropical Micronesian island next to her.
So it’s a major dilemma for the author of a memoir, one I’ll have to deal with in the coming year. How do I balance including enough detail and reality to make my readers feel like they were actually there, but also protect the privacy of my family and friends, and more importantly, keep them from hating me for something down the road? More on this subject in blogs to come.
And one last note, I had been reading Annie Dillard’s memoir American Childhood for pointers on what a good memoir looks like. Although it is an illustrious memoir and I did enjoy it, I sent it back to the library only half finished because it was too far from my style of writing. So while interesting and worth reading, I was too excited to read something closer to my approach. She’s famous for her fiction, not her memoir, and her memoir read like fiction, with elaborate setting descriptions and poetic prose, that of a more classically trained writer. I consider myself much closer to Diablo Cody (writer of the screenplay for the movie Juno) than Annie Dillard on the writing style spectrum, for better or worse.
Thanks for reading.