2012 Festival of Books: The Ties That Bind

You know you’re getting older when you just can’t stop reading memoir.

I’m (hopefully) nowhere near the age when it’s all in the rear-view mirror, but let’s just say I’m glancing in that direction with increasing frequency.

The compulsion to read memoir is a little like comparing notes – thinking about my own life and wondering, “So, how did it all happen for you?”

Recalling the facts of one’s life, however, can be a muddy business: the writer is ever grappling with sustaining dramatic interest, capturing the essence of an historical moment, and getting it right. And when you’re writing — trying to articulate a larger truth about humanity — which is more important: facts or profundity? Most critics would say that genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, provide boundary markings or “sign-posts” for the reader, rules that aid understanding. And while genre blurring and inventiveness are all well and good, lying is a different matter.

During a panel titled, “Memoir: The Ties that Bind” at the L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 21 at USC, moderator Samantha Dunn let her feelings on the issue be known rather clearly: “Memoir is circumscribed by fact, despite what you may have heard,” said Dunn, whose Failing Paris (2002) was a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award.

Mark Whitaker
Photo by Pete Williams

Dunn put the “truth” issue to her panelists, all authors of recent memoirs: Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust), Claire Bidwell Smith (The Rules of Inheritance), Alexandra Styron (Reading My Father), and Mark Whitaker (My Long Trip Home). The upshot of their responses was: “Well, yes, facts are important . . . but facts alone are dull.”

“I spent a couple weeks just writing from memory and it was kind of boring me,” said Whitaker, a former Newsweek editor and NBC News Washington Bureau Chief who currently is the Executive Vice President and Managing Editor of CNN Worldwide.

Whitaker suspected that the story of his parents’ interracial marriage might be worthy of a book. Whitaker’s father, Syl, the grandson of slaves, was a college student in the 1950s when he fell in love with his professor, Jeanne Theis, a World War II refugee from France. After a year-long secret relationship, they married and had two sons, and Syl became a ground-breaking scholar of Africa; however, a bitter divorce left Jeanne struggling with recriminations and Syl spiraling into alcoholism for decades.

When Whitaker’s recollections of his childhood reached a dead-end in the writing process, Whitaker turned to his considerable reporting skills and began to research the historical context of his parents’ marriage. “It was really the reporting that kept me going,” he said.

And yet, Whitaker had to learn to move beyond his journalistic comfort zone and to find his own voice. Despite the historical significance of his family narrative, the story would have been uninteresting without Whitaker’s personal perspective.

“Anyone who writes a memoir has to confront the, “who cares?” he said.

Alexandra Styron
Photo by Rex Bonomelli

For Alexandra Styron, “who cares?” was not an issue – Styron’s father, William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Confessions of Nat Turner in 1968 as well as a National Book Award for Sophie’s Choice in 1980 before descending into depression for the remainder of his life (chronicled in William Styron’s own 1990 memoir, Darkness Visible).

Alexandra Styron’s book combines memoir and biography to provide a much-needed look back at the author (and his star-studded circle) who loomed so large over both a generation of American writers as well as over her childhood.

“He was a complicated man and a difficult father,” said Alexandra, who recalls in the book tiptoeing around while her father was working and being terrified of the psychological warfare he would inflict on the family.

In one episode from the Reading My Father, excerpted in the New York Times, Alexandra’s mother had left baby Alexandra in her walker in the care of her 7-year-old and 9-year-old siblings. When the siblings wandered off to play, Alexandra fell down the basement stairs and suffered a head injury. Alexandra’s siblings found her and cradled her for the next hour until their mother returned home and rushed her to the hospital. The entire time, it turns out, their father was upstairs napping – but the children were too frightened of him to wake him and tell him of the emergency.

Alexandra said that she had finally made peace with the turbulence her father caused in their family after his death in 2006. When the book opportunity came knocking, she immersed herself in the William Styron archive at Duke University.

“What became thrilling for me is that I really got to know my father. I came to really like him so much (and) to understand the man he became,” Alexandra said.

Claire Bidwell Smith
Photo courtesy of the author

Claire Bidwell Smith’s parents weren’t famous, but she knew the story of their early deaths from cancer would make a memoir somehow. She wrote two versions beginning in her 20s, but found a linear narrative – “and then this happened and then that happened” — to be tedious.

Bidwell became a grief counselor, and she began to visualize the form of her book changing. She revised those earlier drafts with a new structure, organized around the five stages of grief. The new arrangement, in The Rules of Inheritance, provides a kind of synergy to the “facts” of Bidwell’s story, elevating it above what otherwise might be simply a sad, personal story.

And yet, let’s face it: most memoirs begin with a search for personal catharsis. As Alexandra Styron said during the Festival of Books panel, the chance to write a memoir can be a great gift —  “It realigns the stars in your life when you go through that process,” she said.

True enough.

Mira Bartók: The Memory Palace & Jenny Lawson: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen
Photo courtesy of flickr/david_shankbone

Before I’m allowed to purchase a single t-shirt on Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen’s “on-trend” website, StyleMint, the twins bombard me with a series of photos designed to help them understand my “Style Profile.”

For a girls’ night out — would I wear skinny jeans or a mini skirt? For retail therapy – would I hit H&M or Neiman Marcus? For my day off work — sun dress or boyfriend jeans?

The whole process throws me into a mild panic. I am such a fashion disaster that a friend once suggested I simply burn my entire closet and have someone else pick my wardrobe.

But I muddle through the Olsen twins’ Proust Questionnaire, and the Full House girls finally label me “Classic Chic” (read: boring) and offer me a series of up-the-middle t’s designed, clearly, for their least fashion-forward customers.

Similarly, and for no good reason other than I happened to read them consecutively in the past couple weeks, I’m going to say “Bartók or Lawson?” could likewise define your own memoir “Style Profile.” (I’m guessing the Olsen twins and these authors have never been mentioned in the same breath before).

Anyway, Mira Bartók’s The Memory Palace (Free Press), which won the National Book Critics Circle 2011 autobiography award last month, is an elegant and harrowing literary endeavor about the artist’s coming to terms with her schizophrenic mother. Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend this Never Happened (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam) is an hilarious – if somewhat rickety – ride through Lawson’s redneck childhood in the Texas outback.

Which memoir would you choose to read?

Bartók’s The Memory Palace lays its erudite ambitions right in its title, which refers to a mnemonic device introduced in ancient Greece and elaborated upon by a 16th-century Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci. The strategy involves affixing each memory to an image, and then placing each memory/image in an imaginary palace in one’s mind. Bartók uses the mnemonic as an overarching structure for the book.

“My mind was full of so many pictures — with each one I could build a different room, each room could lead me to a memory, each memory to another. Since I knew what Ricci didn’t at the time, that memories cannot be fixed, my palace would always be changing. But the foundation would stay the same.”

One of the first images Bartók chooses to “place” is a moment in 1964 when she’s five-years old and living in a second-floor flat on the west side of Cleveland. Bartók recalls standing in the bedroom she shared with her sister and hearing a “low, gutteral sound followed by chattering and laughter.” Bartók wants to hide but doesn’t know why. Tiptoeing into the living room, she finds her mother, the former piano prodigy Norma Herr, in her underwear, stumbling around and speaking in strange voices before beginning to spin wildly, holding a long shiny knife and making slicing motions through the air. Mira sees the open windows next to the living room and wonders if her mother will jump.

Mira Bartók
Photo by Doug Plavin

“I don’t know how it ends, this scene – the beginning of knowledge, the knowledge that I have a secret I must keep from the outside world.”

As Herr slips into madness, her interactions with her daughters become increasingly violent until Bartók and her sister both decide to change their names and sever contact. Over the next few decades, Herr alternates between shelters and homelessness as Bartók keeps only loose tabs on her mother from a remote distance. Bartók’s guilt over abandoning her mother in her sickness percolates throughout the narrative.

“People have abandoned their loved ones for much less than you’ve been through,” Bartók is later told.

But Bartók – and the reader – find scant comfort in this sentiment.

The slipperiness of memory is a theme that lies at the heart of much memoir, but memory issues loom even larger for Bartók, who at the age of 40 sustained a brain injury in a car accident that left her with partial amnesia and cognitive difficulties. Seven years later, in 2006, Bartók was put in contact with her mother for the first time in 17 years after a nurse tracked Bartók down. Rushing along with her sister to their mother’s hospital bedside, Bartók discovered that her mother was dying. Bartók also discovered keys to a storage unit filled with notebooks and keepsakes.

Bartók’s memoir brews during the process of sorting through the storage unit and tending to her dying mother. Childhood artifacts evoke tattered memories, which Bartók renders with an artistic sensibility. Bartók judiciously refrains from overloading her narrative with violent episodes – just a peppering of images of a small child facing a gun-toting grandfather and raging mother are enough to provide the heartrending picture. And although Bartók’s meditation on memory does not strike one as particularly original or acute, the mnemonic structure provides a lovely vessel for her graceful contemplation of family tragedy.

Switching gears (much too abruptly), now — no one has ever called Jenny Lawson graceful.

The Bloggess,” as Lawson is known to the millions who follow her blog each month, hit it big last year with her post about “Beyoncé,” a giant metal chicken she purchased (on sale!) at a discount store to get back at her husband, who refused to allow her to buy towels (he thought they had enough – duh). In retaliation for the towel restriction, Lawson stationed the enormous chicken (made from oil drums) at her front door, then rang the bell and hid around the corner to watch her husband’s reaction from a safe distance. In her post, a photo shows the five-foot, rainbow-colored chicken facing a closed front door with the caption, “Knock-knock, motherfucker.” The post, titled “And that’s why you should learn to pick your battles,” went viral with 300,000 clicks in 24 hours and has now been read by more than two million.

In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, out this week, Lawson recounts her childhood in West Texas, where her dad created a taxidermy shop in a back shed and her mom was the lunch lady in her school cafeteria. “My dad was always rescuing animals, and by ‘rescuing animals’ I mean ‘killing the mother, and then discovering she had babies, and bringing the babies home to raise them in the bathtub.’” One of which, a raccoon the family dressed in home-sewn Jams and named “Rambo,” enjoyed turning on the sink faucets and washing random things (Lawson considered turning him into a tiny butler). One day, though, Lawson’s sister bopped Rambo on the nose and the racoon flipped out, jumping on the sister’s face, as Lawson recollects: “He grabbed on to her ears like he was some kinda horrible raccoon mask, and he was hissing and looking right into her eyes, like, “I WILL BRING YOU DOWN, BITCH,” and my sister was screaming and flailing her arms and it was totally awesome.”

The sheer volume of Lawson’s rapid-fire comedy about her childhood is truly impressive, but unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Lawson she was writing a book and not a blog, and the writing can skew toward sophomoric babble, such as, “I wish I were joking about that, but I’m totally not” or “All of this will be fixed by my editor by the time you read this anyway, so really I could write anything here.”

Jenny Lawson
Photo courtesy of the author

I’m not saying a book can’t be brilliantly and hilariously casual, but I get cranky when a book-length memoir reads like a high school kid’s text message. Then again, Lawson has the ability to buy my love (mostly) back with not only some deeply personal — and tragic — moments, but also with the delightful absurdity of her anecdotes.

Consider Lawson’s entirely juvenile yet snicker-worthy recounting of an argument she had with her husband about the proper receptacle to use for barf: “He was all, ‘Vomit bowl? Who uses a vomit bowl?!’ and I was all, ‘I use a vomit bowl. Everyone uses a vomit bowl. You keep it near you in case you can’t make it to the toilet,’ and he was all, ‘No, you use a trash can,’ and I was like, ‘You sick fuck. I’m not throwing up in a trash can. That’s totally barbaric.’”

Reading Lawson’s memoir is similar to what I imagine it would be like to ride in a monster truck – a wildly bumpy ride with brief moments of hair-raising thrill, where you find yourself wearing a huge shit-eating grin despite the fact that you’re also thinking, “Holy fuck, I’m riding in a monster truck!”

So anyway, which book would I choose to define my memoir “Style Profile”? The elegantly intelligent Bartók or the hilarious hayseed Lawson?

There’s room, of course, in my bookcase for both.


Jenny Lawson will speak tonight in a conversation with Soleil Moon Frye at 7:30 in a Writer’s Bloc event at the Writers Guild Theater.

Cheryl Strayed: Wild

It was not so much a call from the mountains as a view from the gutter that led Cheryl Strayed to embark on a three-month, 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

After the death of her beloved mother and the fraying of her once close-knit family, Strayed had begun a downward spiral in her life that included serial adultery, heroin addiction, and divorce – all by the time she was 26 years old.

Like most rash pronouncements made from the depths of despair, Strayed’s decision to get her life together by hiking a trail that runs along contiguous mountain ranges from Southern California through Oregon and Washington was utterly preposterous: although she had helped tame a plot of land in the Minnesota north woods as an adolescent with her family, and she had camped a bit, she had never once strapped on a backpack and slept alone in the wilderness.

As you can imagine, Strayed made more than a few missteps along her trek.

Strayed tells the story of her momentous hike in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, out this month from Knopf, and it’s Strayed’s unflinching portrayal of her many monumental blunders – both on and off the trail – that makes Wild such a courageous and captivating memoir.

Strayed, a well-respected magazine writer who is also the author of the novel Torch (2006) as well as the popular “Dear Sugar” columnist for The Rumpus, waited nearly 20 years to write her hiking memoir – and the result is an artfully-rendered narrative that not only amusingly retraces her steps along the PCT, but also skillfully assimilates significant moments from her pre-trail life.

Strayed was 22 years old when her dauntless mother, a woman whose love was “full-throated and all-encompassing and unadorned,” was diagnosed with lung cancer. Strayed’s mother, a single mom who had left Strayed’s abusive, biological father when the children were young, was the kind of woman who would entertain her kids with sugar-water spiked with food coloring, who scraped her pennies together to buy a beloved horse, and who (with a second husband) purchased a plot of rural land in Minnesota and brought her kids to help build a house on it. “It was only after her death that I realized who she was: the apparently magical force at the center of our family who’d kept us all invisibly spinning in the powerful orbit around her.”

Strayed’s mother died less than two months after being diagnosed, and Strayed was inconsolable — “I howled and howled and howled, rooting my face into her body like an animal.”

For Strayed, the loss sent her life into a tailspin, and she began to cheat on her sweet, faithful husband, Paul, whom she still loved. Strayed’s sexual “straying” amounted to more than just a few casual affairs – one could probably call it a full-blown (pardon the pun) sex addiction. “It seemed to me the way it must feel to people who cut themselves on purpose. . . . I was trying to heal. Trying to get the bad out of my system so I could be good again.” During one five-day bender that included three different men, she had sex with a massage therapist who gave her a piece of banana cream pie and a free massage. (Not to be flip, but one wonders how Strayed received so many offers of sex. For her solo hike on the PCT, she stowed eleven condoms in her pack. I won’t say if she used them).

After revealing her infidelity to Paul (which ended their marriage), she took off from their home in Minneapolis for Portland, hoping to leave her troubles behind. Instead, she found a punk-haired young lover who got her pregnant and addicted to heroin. In the mornings, she sobbed over her squalid surroundings, but in the afternoons, she returned from waitressing with a wad of cash for more drugs.

Strayed was rescued, mercifully, by the heroic Paul, who drove her out of Portland and back to Minneapolis. Sobbing, one day, over the “sick mire” she had made of her life, Strayed suddenly remembered a book she had recently noticed on a store shelf – The Pacific Coast Trail, Volume I: California. “The thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face.” Strayed began to see hiking the California-Oregon-Washington portion of the PCT (which actually runs from Mexico to Canada) as a way to save her soul.

For the next few months, Strayed soberly prepared for her journey: “I got an abortion and learned how to make dehydrated tuna flakes and turkey jerky and took a refresher course on basic first aid and practiced using my water purifier in my kitchen sink. I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back to the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way. There, I’d walk and think about my entire life. I’d find my strength again, far from everything that had ever made my life ridiculous.”

In short order, up on the trail, Strayed found herself ridiculous again – her pack (which she began calling “Monster”) was so ludicrously overweight she could barely lift it. At one point, Strayed watched one of her (too small) hiking boots sail over a cliff into oblivion. And one night, after camping too close to a reservoir, she woke up covered with tiny frogs.

Strayed’s memoir works simply because she is such a charming travel companion. Even hiking solo on the PCT she manages to befriend dozens of other hikers who have read about her on the trail’s register books, and who begin to refer to her as the “Queen of the PCT.”

What must have been so endearing for those she met along the trail – and what remains so relatable for readers — is Strayed’s humble ability to find herself absurd. As with most memoirs of floundering, we are delighted because we have been there — we recognize ourselves in that lost woman in the woods, and we are thankful to have her chart of the wilderness.


Cheryl Strayed will speak with L.A. Times columnist Meghan Daum at a Zocalo Public Square event at MOCA on Wednesday, Apr. 4 at 7:30.