There was a time,” says Neil Genzlinger in a January 2011 article in the New York Times, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.” When, this article asks us, is [End Page 85] portrayal of a life on the page merely “oversharing,” to the tune of 160,000 hits in an average Google search? “Memoirs,” Genzlinger continues, “have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight…taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child or been an under-privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”1
I admit it: as a memoirist, I bristled when I read this article. My teeth clenched and I paced. Listen here, buddy. Listen to what memoirist Sue William Silverman had to say in a recent editorial called “In Defense of Memoir: Once More into the Fray”:
To write a memoir is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an ‘interesting story’ along the lines of ‘first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.’ Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative.2 [End Page 86]
The truth? I agree with some of what Neil Genzlinger says in his essay. But I’d like to put aside for a while the question of memoir as potentially problematic and focus instead on why, in this often overly self-referential world of Facebook and Twitter, of reality shows and blogs—and of what Christopher Lasch says in The Culture of Narcissism is the massive “social invasion of the self”—we still need an art form that demands that we look deeply inside ourselves, both as writers and readers, as writers of fiction and nonfiction, as writers who believe in that “courageous ability” to transform experience into those mysterious marks on the page called words.3
“True memoir,” says essayist Patricia Hampl in her essay “Memory and Imagination,” “is written in an attempt to find not only a self, but a world.”4 Finding is a journey, one essential to writing both fiction and creative nonfiction. The journey of writing good prose involves not only a manipulation of craft elements but also the uncovering, in draft after draft, of the true heart of a piece at hand. As a writer, I firmly believe that until we ask those hard questions of our prose and of our own lives, our work, as fiction writer Dorothy Allison says, “won’t be worth a damn.”
I’d like to tell a story—my own story of reaching for these difficult questions as I’ve moved from the writing of a novel, to the writing of a memoir, and back again to fiction. In my [End Page 87] particular journey, one art form has been absolutely essential to the writing of another. To understand one form, I’ve entered another, then journeyed back again, in my search for greater depth in my characters and their insights, in my plots and their complexities. I call this journey “looking inside.”
My journey as a writer began with houses. Houses made of the blood and bones and lives of the women in my mother’s family. Pearlie, Ruby, Ruth. Women who have all lived their lives in Floyd County in Eastern Kentucky. Houses. Ghosts of houses. Houses beset by fire, births, deaths. Open doors, shut doors. Houses you enter and never leave.
Over thirty years ago, Pearlie Lee, my mother, went to live in a house off State Road 1498 in Lancer, Kentucky. In that house, she clipped my granny’s nails, braided...