Surface Question 1: Why Memoir? (Part 3)

In this series, “Surface Questions,” I will address questions related to my forthcoming memoir about media, SURFACE TENSIONSwhich will be released on July 1st. To submit a question, email me at nathanroberts@g.harvard.edu; I will draw the name of one question-submitter, who will then receive a free copy of the book. 

Surface Question 1: So I guess I’ll take the bait… I know that you’ve written about movies before, and I know that you’ve written articles, but what inspired you to write a memoir? Are there any particular memoirs that inspired you?

(Continued from Part 2.) Fast forward several months. My book proposal has been submitted and approved. I stare ahead at the 50,000-word mountain that I must summit in ninety days, if all goes well. (The final product ended up containing 60,000 words – something I would not have believed one year ago.) I’m overwhelmed by the prospect of beginning. Beginning is, I think just about any writer will tell you, the absolute worst. You feel the weight of absolute absence. I run all over Prospect Park for inspiration. I go to friends’ graduation parties to drink and stall. I tease out an essayistic meditation on Facebook. I stumble into The Strand and pick up the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick’s nonfiction writing guide, The Situation and The Story, for comfort and guidance.

It’s only so comforting. For Gornick, the very uniqueness of the memoir, compared to the essay, is its devotion to the process of self-development rather than interest in the world beyond the self. For Gornick, it’s a matter of priority: the situation (for me, growing up as a pastor’s kid during the technological boom of the 1990s and early 2000s) is the specific circumstance in which the story unfolds. But the story, “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer,” “is always self-definition,” and if a memoir is worth its salt, the story of self-definition must sit in the driver’s seat:

“From journalism to the essay to the memoir: the trip being taken by a nonfiction persona deepens, and turns ever more inward… The question clearly being asked in an exemplary memoir is ‘Who am I?’ Who exactly is this ‘I’ upon whom turns the significance of this story-taken-directly-from-life? On that question the writer of memoir must deliver. Not with an answer but with depth of inquiry.”

Reading this, I began to fear that by treating my memoir like an extended essay on media, I would pull the memoir away from its true formal calling. I began to fear that I would pull myself away from my role as a memoirist. Not to mention disappointing readers that would pick up my book expecting to be doused with emotional experiences and personal change-over-time. The concept of my memoir-to-be revolved around situation: the media-saturated situation in which we all live. But I began to wonder if the book’s engine really needed to be a story: my bildungsroman, my story of self-growth and self-becoming.

I came to this wondering reluctantly. I knew that if my bildungsroman were to be my train’s engine – rather than the muddy track on which it would roll but ultimately pass, full-steam ahead – my story couldn’t be trite. It would require me to self-examine harder than I had ever self-examined. I would have to wade into my most emotionally fraught experiences: to play in a sandbox mixed with shards of glass. It wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t easy.

But I don’t wish to be all melodramatic. As Gornick describes it, decent memoirists’ “work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self. But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle.” I was fortunate enough to discover, as I finished Chapter One, after I finally turned to the difficult job of charting my personal experience, a flash of insight similar to the one Gornick describes: an insight tied to a steadily changing idea of my emergent self.

You can find this right at the end of Chapter One. It’s sitting there in a late paragraph, a blueprint of everything to come. It’s the sort of realization that, if pulled out of the text after the fact, would seem to diminish the complexity of my experience. But as insight realized early into the text, it provided myself (and, as woven into the text, readers) with an organizing principle. Far from diminishing the complexity of my further writing, it gave me a preparatory sketch for the oil painting, an outline I could then fill with colors and chiaroscuro and all of the messy contradictions of life. This insight pulled out a developing self that I could track, that felt – despite its relative simplicity – authentic, or not unfairly distorted, at least. It gave the story a way forward. It provided an engine for the train that would glide upon situational elements. It provided what, I steadily grew to believe, would justify the reader’s investment in 50,000+ words: an honest excavation of my own selfhood, my own life, my own coming-of-age. My plan of attack changed significantly.

Well, I don’t wish to exaggerate here. What changed was not the direction I was walking, exactly, but a shift like a pivot from my heel to the ball of my foot: a crucial shift in my center of gravity, but a subtle one. It’s not like I trashed the meditative philosophical bits entirely. Far from that: I merely realized that they were only valuable insofar as they related to and illuminated my personal experiences. And much to my steadily increasing excitement, through many hours toiling in coffee shops, natural connecting tendrils began to form between the personal and the theoretical, the experiential and the philosophical, the everyday and the academic.

I was helped in this regard by one more Vivian Gornick bit, a quote that formed a central cornerstone for Surface Tensions.

To be concluded tomorrow…

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