Last August right here on Red Room I responded to an interesting article about meta-fiction by Tanya Egan Gibson asking her if would switch gears and write a guest blog for me regarding meta-memoir. Good friend and brilliant writer that she is, she did it, and here it is. (Yes, it took awhile. But give her a break; she's the mom of two little ones and had recently published her debut novel, so she actually works pretty fast!)
Halfway into writing an essay about your mother’s carefully crafted thank-you notes–the handwritten and heartfelt kind that seem to have gone the way of the mastodon–you find yourself stuck. Perhaps you’re worrying that nobody else in the world could possibly care about this story, or that you won’t be able to properly convey the nuances of your mother’s motivations. Or perhaps you’re finding yourself revealing more emotion or truth than you’re really comfortable with–you actually resented the time she took writing those notes when she could have been helping you with your homework/Home Ec project/boy problems. As you ruminate about how difficult it is to tell this story, a thought strikes you: Why not tell a story about trying to tell this difficult story?
It’s Genius, you think. You will write about disconnection–about how hard it is to be a writer who is supposed to make strangers feel things about events and people the aforementioned strangers really have no reason to care about. Like thank-you notes. And that velour shirt for Home Ec that was missing a sleeve.
And wait, there’s more! Why not go even a step further and comment upon writing this story about not writing a story about your mother, narrating every moment of your writing the not-story, employing a Twitter-esque present-tense hyperconsciousness? As in, I keep looking back at the last paragraph, the dangling preposition taunting me, but I force myself to type onward.
Clever you. Meta- you. Are you feeling the heart of your story?
By meta-, I mean writing does not encourage the reader to experience a waking dream–in fact, it keeps telling the reader, “This is just a dream.” The writer may wax self-referential (”I am writing about writing about writing”). He or she may employ devices normally reserved for non-narrative nonfiction (e.g., footnotes which themselves extend the narrative or even take over the narrative). He or she might play with the structure of the narrative to make the form of the narrative as important as/more an important than its content. (Imagine the thank-you note essay structured as a thank-you note to mom.)
It’s cool. It’s fun. It can be stunning, when pulled off subtly, rather than like the hyperbolic examples I gave above. As a reader and writer of meta-fiction, however, I have a love/hate relationship with the stuff–because it can also be an excuse for heartlessness.
Though I don’t write memoir, I do read it. I read for emotional reasons as much as for intellectual ones. Perhaps, to be honest, even more so. I read to feel like I’m not alone in the world. I read to understand what goes in the heads of people I might never meet, or I might be afraid to meet, or I might be afraid wouldn’t like me if we did meet. I read to connect.
Good writing is honest and brave (and by “honest and brave,” I don’t mean you tell-all). To be brave, I think, is to embrace emotion rather than skirting it. When I’m reading something self-referential, I hope to find a “self” nurtured by meta-devices rather than obscured by them–as in Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, whose manifold footnotes seek to engage the heart instead of distance it, or Stephen Elliott’s highly acclaimed The Adderall Diaries (which I put on my wish list).
It is lovely to be clever, and it is lovely to behold cleverness. But as Egger’s work implies, genius and heart are often at odds, even as they inhabit the same ironic title. And in the end, I’ll take “heartbreaking” over “genius.”
Bio: Tanya Egan Gibson is the author of How To Buy a Love of Reading– a novel that may or may not be considered meta-fiction (and that may or may not satirize meta-fiction)–about nouveau riche parents who try to cure their teenage daughter’s hatred of books by commissioning a custom-written novel for her. She’d love if you visited the book’s site at http://www.howtobuyaloveofreading.com and shared your own story about how reading changed (or even saved) your life.
My advice – read my review - then buy her book.