January 6, 2010

The Curse of Memoir - A Guest Post by Ken Olsen

Our Cool Person Guest Blogger today is Ken Olsen. Ken is an award-winning freelance journalist who covers the West from Portland, Oregon. Here’s an excellent article of his on the salmon controversy in Oregon. His writing has appeared newspapers and magazines including Men’s Journal, National Wildlife, High Country News, The American Legion, Boys’ Life, and many others. His widely hailed series on Vernon Baker, the only living World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, was published in the Spokane Spokesman-Review and resulted in a book called Lasting Valor. His essays have been published in the Left Bank series of literary anthologies. He was born and raised in Wyoming and misses fishing with a willow-stick. When he’s not chasing his border collies, he’s hard at work on a book about love, loss, adventure, and Alaska.

If you are the spouse of a philandering politician from the South or a flaky has-been from the Far North, memoir sounds like grand revenge on the cheating bastard in your life or the campaign staffer you wish to blame for your intellectual shortcomings. Not to mention a ticket to appear on Oprah.

If you are running for president, you have to get your personal story of triumph into print to try and control the biography the press will recount if you and your campaign fund last long enough to command some coverage.

In either case, there’s generally a ghostwriter to endure the pain of turning your stream of consciousness into something coherent and readable. And ample evidence that it’s not always possible to turn a sow’s ear into anything more than a sow’s backside. (We can all think of a recent example, but lest we sneer, the “author” has a sleek touring bus and appears to be finding plenty of people willing to shell out the $28.99 for a printed copy of her incoherence.)

For the rest of us, writing memoir is a long, lonely battle with self-doubt, family expectations, disappointment and the endless evidence of our own shortcomings. It’s laboring to make sense of the nuances, the things left unsaid, the care given and the emotional acknowledgement denied. Pretty much like any creative writing project except that memoir, by definition, means dragging the family’s worst baggage out into the spotlight of cross-examination and humiliation. And nothing haunts your pages like the worry of how your mother/father/sister/grandmother will react to you detailing the family back-story in print.

Abigail Thomas offers me the best remedy. “Write like you are an orphan,” advises Thomas, author of a magnificent memoir titled A Three Dog Life as well as a craft book called Thinking About Memoir.


Lest you’ve breathed a sigh of relief because your brother never went to jail for his mobile meth lab, remember that it’s often the small, innocuous stuff that causes the most family backlash. Not Uncle Eddy’s addiction to cough syrup or Mom’s life as a pool hustler. Rather, it’s often the stuff the writer considers inconsequential – the phrases and scenes that are “just there for color” – that are gasoline for the fires of disagreement.

Early in my journalism career, I was required to write a weekly column. Like most newly minted reporters with a limited repertoire of life experience and war stories to draw upon, I quickly turned to embarrassing my family in order to fill that gapping hole in the newspaper. My family quickly turned against me.

The most memorable rebuke came after I penned an insightful, if not slightly hyperbolic piece, about the Scandinavian-American’s zeal for celebrating Norwegian Independence Day by purposefully ruining fish and other perfectly good food, a rigid tradition of culinary transgressions reenacted to mark the fatherland’s habit of savoring cod reconstituted in lye and rancid trout fermented in a buried crock. (Truth be known, independence amounted to the Swedes cutting Norway loose before some Viking began whipping up Lutefisk on the Food Channel.) Even worse: a little research reveals that Norwegian-Americans stranded in North Dakota and Minnesota are about the only people enthusiastic about lutefisk and other “traditional” dishes. Back in Norway, this sort of crap went out with the invention of the refrigerator.

But I digress.

My sister wrote a blistering letter to the editor in response to my column, ridiculing my abject lack of patriotism and pointing out all of the ways I had blasphemed my roots. She has since packed her steamer trunk and decamped to the fatherland, so I am free to bring this matter back out into the open. Unless, of course, the Internet allows her to stumble across it from her cottage in the fjord.

Since that dispute and a dozen similar incidents, my family has nominally adjusted to my proclivity for telling stories about our clan. Or decided to ignore me. They still quietly torment me, when I fail to follow Abigail Thomas’ directive to adopt an orphan writer’s mindset. Even then, my family is not the greatest hurdle.

I am.

Memoir requires that I reveal myself on the page. It is a means of holding a mirror up to myself that illuminates, in high definition, scars and warts and moles I’ve learned to overlook. It reminds of things I’d like to forget. It makes me self-conscious, self-aware, embarrassed, self-critical and every other adjective about insecurity and self-doubt.

I also sometimes find it impossible to articulate how I felt, what I anticipated, what I was anxious or excited about without being seized with the fear that I’ll look like the most ridiculous fool to find pen and paper. And what I consider a breakthrough, a strip-me-naked soul-bearing passage, often reads like a vague dodge to my closest writing confidents. I haven’t shown myself on the page, shared emotion. Conveyed feeling. Allowed the reader to love/hate/empathize with me. It’s an exasperating, throw-in-the towel place for a writer. It’s like being a male in a reality-show version of couples counseling, where the woman says, “honey, I just want to know how you feel,” the guy says, “I just told you. I’m worried my truck is losing compression on two cylinders, hunting season opens in a month, and I don’t have the money to fix it.” And they stare at each other as if they are conversing with someone speaking in tongues.

Simultaneously, I battle the built-in filters. Top of the list: The Scandinavian proclivity for silence – brooding is the breed’s pinnacle of self-expression. Then there’s my own family’s tendency not to talk about anything personal. Add to that growing up in the West where self-sufficiency is assumed. If you’ve got to whimper about your troubles – with the notable exceptions of gun rights, wolves, and gubberment interference with just about anything – you don’t belong. Finally, I trained as a journalist, which means I’ve been trained to keep myself out of a story. And so I naturally do.

Beyond these creative hurdles, there’s the constant task of reining in the sprawling tome. How much background, how much chronological time, how much detail about the setting do I share? Can I use the most interesting decade of my life as the lens through which everything about me is revealed? Tobias Wolf wrote a great memoir centered on a single year in Vietnam called In Pharaohs Army. Ann Hood’s Comfort is about the unexpected death of her child. A Three Dog Life tells of how Abigail Thomas dealt with her husband’s traumatic brain injury. Jarhead is about Anthony Swofford’s tour in the first Gulf War. None are exhaustive in terms of the time span covered. Each of these excellent writers selected a slice of their lives and told us compelling stories without burdening us with the narrative of their lives from birth to baptism, baccalaureate degree and beyond.

Finding this container, that shape, is incredibly important because it forces us to put sideboards on the story, to discard the legions of stuff that don’t belong, to hone in on the essence of our narrative. Like everything involving writing, finding this shape means trying many times before discovering the right mix.

After four years and many jettisoned manuscripts, I’ve finally found that container. And, thanks to the politics of the moment, I’ve also found myself blessed with one great association: Sarah Palin. She’s from Alaska. (I’m taking that on faith. I haven’t seen her birth certificate.) I lived in Alaska. She skinned a moose. I skinned a few million salmon. She was governor of Alaska for several months. I worked in a fish cannery several summers. She attended college in Idaho. As did I.

The rest of the details? The dirt? You’ll have to wait for my tell-all.

I can’t wait. Thanks so much, Ken!

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