Tennessee blackberry, Photo by Maria Browning

You feel a sense of shared humanity at a funeral – always. Shared grief is one of the few consolations in a time of deep sorrow and shock.

Sometimes, also, in the woods, you might have the feeling of shared humanity – when you’ve seen something strange or beautiful, and someone else has, too.

If you live in Nashville, you’ve heard about the rare piebald fawn born at Radnor Lake this summer. The fawn feels like a fairy tale or mythic creature among us – ghostly, exquisite. Not of this world, exactly. Yet it lives in the woods, among the other woodland creatures, and anyone who glimpses it feels touched by its exceptional beauty. The fawn is still and also in motion; she lets the wonder of the world course around her and through her. She whispers her dreams to the other deer – and any other creature who might listen. The forest is changed by the piebald fawn and her gentle murmurings.

I’m so happy to welcome one of Nashville’s most beautiful, gentle, skeptical, wonder-filled writers – Maria Browning – back to Bacon. She’s thinking about memoir as a genre…

From Maria: I’ve always been something of a literary omnivore, willing to read almost anything that’s reasonably well written. One of the small sorrows of getting older is realizing that there aren’t enough years left to read all the books that interest me. Heck, there aren’t enough years left to read all the unread books currently in my house.

But until a few years ago, my tolerant appetite didn’t extend to memoirs. Celebrity autobiographies were a guilty pleasure when I was a teenager—I remember loving Lauren Bacall’s By Myself—but the few literary memoirs I dipped into mostly left me cold. Sometimes I’d enjoy one that provided a slightly more highbrow version of the gossip that made the celebrity books so alluring. (Lost Property by Ben Sonnenberg, founder of a highly lauded literary magazine called Grand Street, filled that bill nicely, as I recall.) Nothing converted me, though. I still gave the side-eye to the genre as a whole.

I’m not entirely sure why. If you’d asked me, I probably would have made the usual complaints about memoirs being blinkered, self-indulgent, or self-serving. They often seemed to demand more of a reader’s trust than they deserved. When the genre surged in popularity in the 1990s with books like Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, I dug in my heels and refused to get with the trend.

I think the book that turned me around was Karen McElmurray’s Surrendered Child, first published in 2004.

I was writing book reviews for the Nashville Scene then, and Surrendered Child was offered to me as an assignment. I doubt I would ever have read it outside of that context. A memoir about a dysfunctional family and a teenage mother who gives her child up for adoption? No, thanks. But money changes everything, as they say, and I happily accepted the job.

To my surprise, McElmurray’s account of growing up with a deeply troubled mother and struggling to find her identity struck a deep chord with me—though not, as you might expect, because my life story mirrored hers in any way. My own mother was a fine, nurturing parent, I’ve always had a pretty strong sense of self, and I’ve never had a baby, much less given one up for adoption. It was the writer’s voice that got to me, her lyrical yet fierce voice, and her powerful depiction of the way confusion and pain can get all tangled up with love, especially when we’re young. She used the particulars of her own story in the service of a much larger truth. As I said in my review, she trained “a laser-like focus on mundane details and fleeting exchanges in order to illuminate big mysteries that defeat direct examination.”

Of course, I have always been aware that good fiction gets at deep truth through story, and I don’t know why McElmurray was the writer who finally got it through my head that memoir can do the same thing. Perhaps it was the strength of her witness. There’s nothing brash about Surrendered Child, but there is palpable courage in it. McElmurray writes as a vulnerable person exploring her own experience, not packaging it for a reader’s consumption. And yet her narrative does feel like an offering: This is what happened. This is what I remember. I share it as an act of faith in what’s human between us. 

I couldn’t tell you how many memoirs I’ve read since 2004—one or two a year, at least. Probably more. And no, they haven’t all been wonderful. A few have awakened my old skepticism. I’m particularly wary of the ones that seemed designed to inspire or enlighten. Please, dear writer, tell me your story. Don’t tell me how to feel about your story.

But the good ones have certainly outnumbered the not-so-good, and they have each given me the same sense of shared humanity with the writer that I experienced with Surrendered Child. If I survey a few recent favorites—Screening Room by Alan Lightman, Hold Still by Sally Mann, Fire Shut Up In My Bones by Charles Blow, and We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle—I find that, again, common experience is not the ground of my communion with the stories. Those writers’ lives are nothing like mine. It’s their generosity and courage that enthrall me, and their willingness to let me in on their struggle to find some truth behind the chaos of living.

All this reading of memoirs has, perhaps inevitably, led me to some tentative attempts at the genre, and of course this puts me in a very large crowd. Literary magazines and bookstore shelves are overflowing with personal pasts. Most of my students at the Porch Writers’ Collective are interested in mining their own lives, and there are scores of books and online courses for aspiring memoirists. Everybody, it seems, wants to write her story. And while my enduring inner skeptic sees a strain of narcissism in it all, my more generous self welcomes it as sign that we still have some faith in each other and in the beauty of our shared existence.

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For Maria’s beautiful review of We Are All Shipwrecks, published in the Nashville Scene on January 4, 2018, click here. Maria serves as Managing Editor of Chapter16.org and teaches writing classes at The Porch.


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