Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Guest Post: Memoir, Truth, and Activism

Today's guest post comes from Audrey Beth Stein, the author of the memoir Map. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is a two-time national prizewinner in the David Dornstein Memorial Short Story Contest. She teaches memoir and novel development at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Direct links to order Map can be found at http://map.audreybethstein.com.


I stumbled into writing memoir accidentally. Back in 1996 as a senior in college, I unexpectedly fell in love with another woman over the internet, via an Indigo Girls email list. Although I hadn't really come out before it happened, telling people "I have a girlfriend" was relatively easy (and in some ways thrilling). It was the follow-up questions, beginning with "where did you meet?" that continued to make me feel insecure even months after the relationship had ended. This was a whole new kind of coming out. I needed words.

Nine-and-a-half years and sixteen drafts later, those initial words had become my memoir Map, a coming-of-age story that was named a finalist for the 2010 Lambda Literary Award in Bisexual Nonfiction.

To write a memoir and do it well means that you have to dig deep and be willing to dissect, understand, and share that which most people shy away from, ignore, or gloss over. If it hurts, you have to go into the hurt, or the reader feels cheated. If something was good, you have to let the reader in to share the joy. You try your best to be truthful, both factually and emotionally, and to be straightforward with the reader about where you might be deviating from fact, whether due to the fallacies of memory or a respect for someone's privacy.

None of this is easy, and often it helps to let the manuscript sit for a time while you gain some distance and with it new insight. For me, every couple of months of furious writing was followed by six months or a year of fallow time.

I discovered the expanse of the memoir genre during this fallow time. I had read a handful of memoirs before, but suddenly I was seeking it out, devouring other people's stories. Memoir provided a kind of wisdom and guidance for my twenties and early thirties that was different from fiction, more direct. In sharing their stories, memoir authors helped teach me how to tell my own, and also how to live. They helped me understand difference in new ways and find unexpected commonalities. They named truths. For instance, from Harlyn Aizley in Buying Dad: One Woman's Search For the Perfect Sperm Donor:

"The major lesson from long-term relationships, from pregnancy, from illness, is that nothing ever goes as planned. Our worst fears are never as terrible as we have anticipated, our most glorious accomplishments never as life-altering and unequivocal. What looks like a great day coming down the road can turn out to suck to high noon. A day with all of the earmarks of hell on earth can, in fact, be filled with splendor and light."

I'm not very articulate in explaining what I loved about a particular book, and what resonates with me might not resonate with you, but here are a few other queer memoirs that along with Buying Dad particularly stand out in my mind: Name All the Animals by Alison Smith; The Kid: What Happened After My Boyfriend and I Decided to Go Get Pregnant by Dan Savage; and The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl In America by Michelle Tea. I hope through this month's GLBT reading challenge, you'll introduce me to others.

I encourage you to use the comments section here to share your favorite titles and a noteworthy quote or two. I'd love it if you would also tell us why YOU read memoir, and how it differs for you from reading fiction. What do you think queer memoir offers that is unique, and what does it share with all good stories about people's lives?

Nine-and-a-half years is a long time to spend writing about eight months of your life, but when I felt like quitting, I thought about how helpful it had been for me to read other people's stories, and I thought about all the queer and questioning teens who needed to hear stories like mine, needed to read about others sorting out sexuality and relationships and identity.

By the time Map was published, same-sex marriage had been legal in Massachusetts for over five years, teens were regularly coming out in high school and even middle school, and a friend of mine got huge laughs out of a dating cartoon with the punchline, "We met offline." Map had managed to capture a unique time in history, a time when it was easier to admit that you were in love with another girl than that you'd met someone on the internet. And in all of its specificity, it was speaking to many different people, sixteen-year-olds and sixty-year-olds, straight and queer, boys, girls, and in between.

Perhaps Map will also speak to you, but even if it doesn't, I encourage you to join me in this books-as-activism quest by asking your library to order copies of Map and other queer memoirs. And I thank all of you participating in the GLBT Reading Challenge for helping to bring visibility to GLBT books and introduce them to new readers.


Robby said...

This was a great post! I really need to get my hands on this book.

Audrey Beth Stein said...

Thanks, Robby!