I’ve been reading some memoir, partly because I think I should read more of them than I do, and partly because these three, Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi, Just Kids by Patti Smith and Bird Cloud: A Memoir by Annie Proulx appealed.
De Rossi’s account of her battle with anorexia and her eventual coming out as a lesbian (and how the two issues were irrevocably entwined) is a compelling, first person narrative that is, pitch perfect and well written. Almost a page turner on obsession and denial, the book works as a warning to young women who fixate on weight as identity and life-purpose, and in extraordinary tell-all detail, de Rossi reveals her lowest lows and all the accumulative events along the way. We also get an inside look into what the Ally McBeal television show was like to work on (a grim and weight-obsessed place) and the curtain is lifted, to an extent, on how young actresses, seeking careers in Hollywood, are shaped into the ‘right’ dress size for auditions, fittings and characters. De Rossi is also funny and self-deprecating and she knows exactly what she is writing: a self-help, tell-all, not-quite-misery-memoir about confidence, self-belief, responsibility and honesty (and maybe mothers). Unbearable Lightness is a great read and should be widely foisted onto teenagers, as it is, after all, a ‘coming of age’ story. And, it helps that we know Portia winds up blissfully married to uber-celesbian, Ellen DeGeneres, because we know from the get-go that we are in safe hands – Portia found her fairytale, and maybe we can too!
Just Kids by Patti Smith is another type of memoir entirely. Smith purposely set out to document her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe who she met in 1969 in New York, and so, even though the rythmn and rhyme and description and point of view are singularly Smith’s, the story has Mapplethorpe, squarely centre frame. But, having said that, we find out a great deal about Smith, the young wide-eyed and hopeful Smith primarily, along the way. We also have a great slew of secondary characters from Jimi Hendrix to Sam Shepard, William Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Rimbaud and Allen Ginsberg who waltz in and out of diners, doorways and dire apartments and hotel rooms. She refers to Mapplethorpe as ‘the artist for my life’ and the book is a fascinating telling of creativity, inspiration, friendship and perseverance and serves as a brilliant documentation of the late 60s and early 70s music and art scenes in New York. Smith’s love of poetry shines throughout and at the very least, the despair and anger of a young girl growing up in a small town transformed by Rimbaud’s words and images, is an incredible read. The book though, is much more than that, and for any creative soul, struggling or not with the shaping of ideas, there is much to be inspired by and celebrate between the pages. Just Kids won the National Book Prize for Non-Fiction in 2010.
Annie Proulx’s Bird Cloud: A Memoir is the most awkward and self-conscious of these three books. The book covers the buying of 640 acres in rugged Wyoming, her much-loved and written about state, then the design and the build of her dream home, hopefully her ‘final home’, and is presented as an edited diary of the time. Bird Cloud provides a rare insight into the desire for belonging, an almost tangible need to be linked in with the history of a place that seems at once both desperate and quite precious, but it also reveals the prickliness of Proulx’s character, her irritations, her joys and her ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge of the birds, plants and animals that grow and live on her property. Between some beautiful description and language, ‘Walking on the land or digging in the fine soil I am intensely aware that time quivers slightly’, the pace slows and unless you are a die-hard Proulx fan, you might end the book slightly disappointed.
All three writers set out with different aims, scope and reasons for writing but they have all written memoirs that possibly reveal more of them than any of them thought they would. We see the writers as artists, as people living large and pushing through boundaries and also as intimate observers of the societies they live in. Perhaps this lifting, this resonance, is the marker of a good memoir, of good writing in general, the ability to not only reveal yourself on the page but to lift the writing until it resonates to a wider audience. I have a quote pinned to my wall, I don’t know who said it, that I read whenever I’m struggling with writing the real: ‘The best self-portraits reveal a depth of self-knowledge which speaks of a wider grasp of human nature’. I like it. It’s kind of saying the ‘A life unexamined, is a life not lived’ thing or as I have re-worked that line: ‘a life written, without full self-knowledge, is not writing at all.’
And for Patti Smith fans, I have come across this great website www.thisrecording.com which, apart from having video of a short interview and one of those iconic Smith performance’s of Horses on it, also has a superb article by Ann Freidman all about ‘Girl Geniuses’.