Yesterday I came across an announcement about a memoir-writing workshop conducted by Natalie Goldberg, author of the bestselling Writing Down the Bones. Memoirs have become extremely popular. That’s a trend that’s going to enrich innumerable lives. Applause, applause.
How I wish my grandmother had written down her life story – leaving Finland as a young girl to work in New York City, falling in love and marrying an Austrian despite the language barriers, rearing four children during the Depression….I’d rather read that story than any bestseller you could throw at me.
Last month I facilitated an editing class for a group of memoir writers. More applause. They want to pass on not only their memories, but a grammatical account of their life’s adventures.
Our class discussions circled around a host of topics, foremost among them what might be called the Mr. Dick problem. Mr. Dick, you will remember, was a character in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield who was writing a book. Any time you come across a literary character who’s dealing with writing in some way, there’s a strong possibility that postmodernism is making an entrance. (Think of Hamlet revising The Murder of Gonzago for the performance in court.)
The unfortunate Mr. Dick had to keep abandoning his book because the beheading of Charles the First kept finding its way back into the manuscript. And there, my friends, is one of the biggest problems in writing: Keeping the unwanted out.
Simply put, art is not life. Life – even at our best moments – is messy, confusing, and tedious. Good writing can never be any of those things (unless you’re a postmodernist trying to replicate life in the piece you’re creating, as some contemporary geniuses do).
Somewhere in Anne Frank’s amazing diary she tells her imaginary readers that they really know very little about life in the Amsterdam hiding place. This after pages and pages of entries, including a marvelous section where she describes, minute-by-minute, a typical day and night there. Anne, who looked forward to revising and publishing her diary, instinctively knew that good writing is a digestive process. Things are worked over and compressed before the audience is allowed to see them.
Not easy to do. I applaud Natalie Goldberg and all the memoirists, hard at work creating one of the greatest gifts they could give to future generations.
P.S. Did anyone notice my indefinite pronoun reference? I wrote: Somewhere in Anne Frank’s amazing diary she…. Because “Anne Frank’s diary” isn’t the same as “Anne Frank,” my sentence isn’t correct, strictly speaking. You could also say that it’s a dangling modifier.
I say that construction seemed to be the simplest way to say it, and I’m sticking with it.