Memoir, Elderhood & Saturn
Having read Angela’s Ashes and The Liar’s Club in quick succession, I was beginning to think that the only enjoyable memoirs overflow with drama, vulnerability and near-death experiences. But I picked up One Writer’s Beginnings and found myself soothed and lulled and interested. No flash, no drama. Eudora Welty simply investigates memory, her family heritage and the inner workings that primed her to become a writer. It’s beautiful, quiet, reflective and true. She doesn’t shy away from what Mary Karr says is necessary for a good memoir: “The life chroniclers who endure as real artists come across as folks particularly schooled in their own rich inner geographies. A quest for self-knowledge drives such a writer to push past the normal vanity she brings to party dressing. She somehow manages to show up at the ball boldly naked.”
Welty closes her memoir with acknowledgement that she’s had a quiet life. And that a quiet life doesn’t preclude writing. Welty says,
“As you have seen, I am a writer who came of a sheltered life. A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”
Ursula K. Le Guin agrees that high-octane experiences are not required for writing. In The Wave in the Mind she writes:
“Aspiring writers keep telling me they’ll start writing when they’ve gathered experience. Usually I keep my mouth shut, but sometimes I can’t control myself and ask them, ah, like Jane Austen? Like the Bronte sisters? Those women with their wild, mad lives cram full of gut-wrenching adventures working as stevedors in the Congo and shooting up drugs in Rio and hunting lions on Kilimanjaro and having sex in SoHo and all that stuff that writers have to do - well, that some writers have to do?”
Having started to read Jeanette Walls The Glass Castle, I realized that not only can a good memoir be quiet like Eudora Welty’s, but an eventful childhood doesn’t automatically make a good memoir. The blurb on my edition of The Glass Castle puts Walls in the company of McCourt and Karr, but I found that after reading their books, Walls’ story didn’t ring true.
McCourt writes from his childhood perspective and the gaps in his understanding are left for us to try to fill with our adult awareness. In the earliest parts of the book, Frank’s neighbor women fill the gaps for us. We learn to trust their savvier adult vision. Part of the tension of the book is that we realize how young Frank is as he’s trying to navigate the world, often with an adult’s responsibilities but without an adult’s insight.
Mary Karr opens The Liar’s Club with a dramatic scene but she’s careful to tell us the physical details she remembers and to let us know where she’s had to fill in the gaps in her memory by asking neighbors or waiting for an additional memory to reveal itself. We know we’re hearing from an adult who’s being as true as possible to her childhood memory, while trying to make sense of those memories for herself and for us.
Similarly, Walls starts with drama - “I was on fire” - but fills in too many details. In the first pages I found myself wondering how she remembered that her dog tentatively licked the hot hotdog she held out to him.
She reports conversations with the nurses in the hospital that make her sound like a 10 year old who’s there for an immunization when she’s really a three-year-old with extensive burns on her body.
“‘Mom says I’m mature for my age,’ I told them, ‘and she lets me cook for myself a lot.’” That’s not a three-year-old talking. It reads like an adult imitating a child’s voice.
Plus, Walls writes herself as the hero victim. A nurse tells her she’s going to be okay. “‘I know,’ I said, ‘but if I’m not, that’s okay, too.’ The nurse squeezed my hand again and bit her lower lip.”
Mary Karr and Eudora Welty both report the things they said as children, but with commentary - often wry commentary - from their adult perspectives. Or, in Mary Karr’s case, commentary from the town. “And I came back with a reply that the aging mothers in that town still click their tongues about.”
And while something in Mary Karr’s and Frank McCourt’s voices made me want to stick with them despite the foibles, failings or downright threat of their parents, I didn’t feel inclined to stick with Walls. Her parents seem like caricatures - not that I think she made them up. I think it’s hard to portray the incredibly complex feelings a child has for a parent, even when the parent is failing at being a parent. Frank McCourt shows us the complexity of his father - a kind man who loves his children and drinks the dole money leaving his children hungry - and the complexity of Frank’s feelings for his father.
“I think my father is like the Holy Trinity with three people in him, the one in the morning with the paper, the one at night with the stories and the prayers, and then the one who does the bad thing and comes home with the smell of whiskey and wants us to die for Ireland.”
Maybe that’s what the best memoirs do. Rather than tell a story so it’s neat and pat and tied up with a bow, it tells a story so that we get at the truth of life which is that it’s far more complicated, deep and surprising than we can account for. But we can try to make sense of it, and that’s important.
Steven Forrest talks about the process of becoming an elder vs. an “old fart.” (Becoming an elder is the result of a well-navigated 2nd Saturn return.)The difference, he says, is that an elder has digested her experiences, while an “old fart” is simply a windbag who regurgitates stories without having gained any insight from her experiences.
Fay and her family, in Eudora Welty’s book The Optimist’s Daughter, exemplify the kind of people “who never know the meaning of what has happened to them.” Fay may endure physically. As Miss Tennyson says, “She’ll live forever and a day. She’ll be right here when we’re gone.” But she won’t endure as what Mary Karr calls a real artist, because she is unschooled in her own rich inner geography. She is, as Welty writes, “a person whose life has not taught her how to feel.”
As Karr says in The Art of Memoir: “The writer who’s lived a fairly unexamined life - someone who has a hard time considering a conflict from another point of view - may not excel at fashioning a voice because her defensiveness stands between her and what she has to say.”