Monday, November 2, 2009

To Be or Not to Be a Memoirist (When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction)

My name is Valley Haggard and I am writing a memoir.

There, I said it. But rest assured, that statement is offered up with a cringe, an apology and enough explanations to assure you that I'm not just like every other self-indulgent narcissist out there editing their over-wrought diary entries from high school. Except that well, I am, a little.

See, once upon a time I wrote fiction. But then weird, interesting, fascinating, tragic, life-changing things started happening to me. You know- crazy shit like falling in love, getting my heart squished, traveling around---essentially the same stuff that happened to everybody who couldn't find a good job after college. I've just never been able to shake these experiences loose when it's time to sit down to write a "story." Even if I get as far as inventing a gutsy heroine utterly unlike myself, suddenly out pops the buffalo head I saw sitting on a picnic table in Arkansas. Or the remains of Hooker, the first horse I ever rode, rotting out in a clearing in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area. Certain images have been so burned into my consciousness that they have overridden every other thing I've tried to write about for any sustained period of time. So while I dabble around the blurry lines of creative nonfiction, I have to tell the truth, ugly as it may be. I am writing a memoir.
My mother, for one, would prefer I wrote a novel. So, perhaps, would everyone else in my book who makes more than a cameo. But other than borrowing certain devices- like plot and dialogue- from the world of fiction- I just don't see what there is to be gained from changing the story. Avoiding lawsuits? Bah. What's the fun in that? Maybe my imagination jumped ship somewhere in Alaska, but I think it's more likely that I've made the full conversion to become a devoted handmaiden to the belief that Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction.

But it's not as easy as typing up my journals or scribbling down what I think you said. At this year's James River Writer's Conference one of the top New York agents said- to roughly paraphrase- that by and large memoirs fall into 2 categories: those by the already famous with huge, exciting lives that can't write for shit OR beautifully written, lyrical memoirs by nobodies about absolutely nothing at all. The trick, my friends, is to strike the balance.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I love reading memoirs. It is a bit of a guilty pleasure because I always feel like I should be reading Moby Dick or Gravity's Rainbow, but please. What I haven't read (or finished reading) is an entire confession unto itself that I'll submit to Saint Peter at the Pearly Gates.
Memoirists who can ride the seesaw of a thrilling life captured by perfect words are the writers to whom I am currently offering virgin sacrifices. One such is Jeannette Walls, whose books I've gobbled up and who I would definitely select as my one allotted companion on a desert island- or Welch, West Virginia- wherever I happened to be stranded. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Jeannette at her rural Virginia farmhouse twice- once in 2006 after the publication of her international bestselling memoir, "The Glass Castle" and more recently- this past September for "Half Broke Horses: A True Life Novel" about her spitfire maternal Grandma, Lily Smith. And Jeannette- one of the kindest, toughest, smartest, bravest women I've had the honor of knowing- is far from apologetic about whatever it is she chooses to write.
So, after much agonizing, I've (mostly) come to terms with the fact that I'm writing a fucking memoir. And I've managed to get one chapter smack in the middle of it, Mountain Baby, published by the Writers' Dojo out of Portland, Oregon. It is just one chapter and it is just online but please, humor me while I pretend I won a Pulitzer this year, OK? The rewards of spending so much "free time" in tortured introspective life-revisions are few and far between so I must insist on eeking out this small glory long enough to get me through the next chapter.