“Stick to the writing!”
In workshops as we respond to a memoir piece someone has just read, I remind myself and others that there’s a dangerous line we cross when we don’t stick to the writing.
Hearing a personal story written candidly, spontaneously, with no attempts at camouflage, it’s easy to respond with empathy, “oh, you poor dear,” or “how brave you were.” Or, to respond by judging the writer’s life decisions – agreeing with, or worse, second guessing them.
No writer wants to hear that. That’s not why we write. Comments like that do not support the writing. They detract from it. They distract from it, whether with empathy or judgment. Either way, they cross the line – a hard line to define sometimes, but a real danger zone when it comes to reviewing or giving feedback on memoir writing.
Recently I finished re-reading Ingrid’s Betancourt’s outstanding memoir, Even Silence Has an End. I’m not the crying type, but I had tears in my eyes in the closing pages. This is eloquent writing. Yes, I loved the adventure of the story and the rain forest environment, but it is Betancourt’s obvious integrity-filled effort to write down her inner experiences, self-examinations and observations of those tortuous years, and how carefully she describes those moments when freedom finally arrives that make this book stand high above the sea of standard memoir.
Betancourt’s writing is so intelligent and vulnerable. You can tell she is not seeking more than to tell her truth. (And that she’s smart and capable and can do it artfully in words.)
After turning the last page and taking a moment, I went to see what the reviewers had said. I started to read one that sounded in tune with my own sentiments. The reviewer wrote several paragraphs about how moving the book was.
But then, the reviewer’s voice changed direction, criticizing Betancourt for making money on the book and for charging high fees to speak, telling us that no one in Colombia can stand her.
What has that got to do with the writing? Absolutely nothing.
I am not at all convinced that Ingrid and I would fall in love should we ever sit down for a cup of tea together. I can imagine she might be very hard to get close to. She’s a tough cookie and she doesn’t suffer fools. (I’d like to see her and that reviewer in the ring together — ha! I know where I’d put my money.)
But that has nothing to do with the masterful work Ingrid has done creating this memoir.
So, yes, I loathe it when people think they are reviewing a memoir and really what they are reviewing are the decisions made in the narrative, the life choices willingly exposed.
Recently I heard Aaron Sorkin (the creator of West Wing and Newsroom) say that he doesn’t think anyone’s life could survive public scrutiny. I love that. I agree.
I guess that’s why many people are afraid to write probing memoir; they know the piranhas are out there.
Piranhas don’t scare me though. And they certainly do not scare Ingrid Betancourt. That’s one reason why her book is so good.
So, memoir writers – prepare to be bitten, and dare to be brave. Memoir reviewers, be you piranhas or empaths, remind yourself, “Stick to the writing!”
Marta Szabo is the co-director of Authentic Writing and author of two memoirs, The Guru Looked Good and The Imposters. With her husband Fred Poole, she teaches Authentic Writing, offering workshops in Manhattan and across the Northeast United States. They founded and hold the Memoir Festival every other year at Omega Institute, gathering together the most accomplished writers of the form. Follow Marta on Twitter at @MemoirWriter.