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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Writing Memoirs and First Novels

Lives I didn't live have been on my mind for the last year. This is also a dilemma for writers trying to create a memoir. The temptation is to follow the "what ifs" and become entangled in resentments. In his excellent THE MEMOIR AND THE MEMOIRIST, Thomas Larson suggests that this is fallacious reasoning, because it doesn't consider the value of the life you did live, and that the one you didn't, the road not taken, might have lead to different disasters.

A similar pitfall awaits young writers in attempting first novels, books best left unread. Knowing nothing of life but the brief one they have recently lived, their novels become thinly disguised memoirs. Perhaps reaching for drama, they air injustices, real or imagined, unaware that we all had similar angst-filled childhoods. Better to wait to use this material when you are much older and able to distinguish true tragedies.

If only I'd resisted that cute sailor and fulfilled my plan to attend Standford and become a clinical psychologist, wouldn't my life have been so much better, more fulfilling? Or I might have been lured by the flower children in San Francisco and languished as a hippie poet and a Lawrence Ferlinghetti groupie.

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Blogger Thomas Larson said...


It's very nice of you to mention and link my book. Thanks. Yes, the life we did live is the life we write about, and it becomes especially interesting when we contrast it with the life we thought we should have led. (A great example is Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody?) That kind of interactive honesty, across time, is what you see only in the postmodern and ambiguity-laced memoir---neither the autobiographers nor the celebrity self-tattlers ever go in for that dimension of discovery.


1:52 PM  

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