Past, Present and Future Memoirists

The recent bloggy “death” of Bitch, Ph.D.

The ongoing bloggy silences from a variety of other bloggers, including your’s truly.

Perhaps blogging is not unlike those little pink books with the fake locks, and a variety of other lined spiral notebooks,  that I’ve stored in plastic bins: most are half empty, started religiously right after Christmas or on January 1st, filled with lovingly detailed scenes of each lived day, or emotional outbursts that stem from the less visible but even more volatile inner world.  The entries become less detailed by April, and much less frequent by early June, only to die off as soon as the weather enticed the vitamin-D deprived me outside, away from florescent-lit navel gazing toward more sun-baked kinetic pursuits.

The dying of an individual’s blog may not follow the seasons as much, though I suspect for academics, fall is such a dramatic change from summer that blogs become just another thing on the to do list rather than a source of release and pleasure.

But like keepers of those lock-less diaries, I suspect all bloggers will return to blogging, or something like it, again and again. And though I know nothing truly ever goes away once it’s on the Internet, I hope all bloggers archive their blogs in some format that will be accessible in 2040.  I’m looking forward to those retrospective memoirs of bloggings-past.

The new Facebook feature I read about this morning seems particularly relevant since I suspect that the appeal of the instant response from hundreds of friends to our hastily posted status updates is more immediately rewarding than the infrequent comments to a thoughtfully developed blog posting: exporting our Facebook profiles.  It looks like there have been outside “apps” of sorts that have allowed you to store your Facebook pages on your hard drive, but now FB itself seems to be making it easier for everyone to do.  No longer must we allow that nagging worry that we’ll lose all those photos, those likes and dislikes, those status updates. [And there are at least 10 ways to archive one’s Tweets.]

I’m teaching the Introduction to the Memoir course this term and while the focus is on reading memoirs as a genre, we also do some autobiographical exercises, such as strategies for choosing a focus  for a memoir, or strategies for presenting such a past experience.  Many of my students have chosen to write a brief memoir as their final project (interestingly, only one has chosen to blog–the rest are writing traditional retrospective descriptions of a period in their past—almost all focused on the early teen years, not surprisingly) so the exercises are also designed to help them as they draft. 

Next week, I’ll remind them about this export feature in Facebook: for the future memoirist, reading our own status updates 30 years from now will be quite the minefield of information. [And by then, the 10th edition of the MLA Handbook will have a chapter devoted to citing such artifacts.]

Call for Blogs

This fall, I’ll be teaching an Introduction to Autobiography course, a course I pushed through curriculum last year after we did a year-long survey of students to find out classes might interest them.  Our thought was to add spice to our standard survey and introduction to literature offerings to take advantage of the increase in enrollment (and, not incidentally, get back the many students who were using Art History and Communication courses to fulfill their general education Humanities’ requirement). 

[In case you’re interested, the most requested course idea was The Bible as Literature, but the one faculty member in our department willing and able to teach such a course, put it off another year, understandably,  after a few over the top fundamentalist students acted out on campus last year (remember my colleague’s student who would bring a cross and rosary beads to class, praying with them as s/he lectured?) ]

So, autobiography.  It’s been a challenge creating this 10-week course for non-majors, since there is so much I want to do, but I don’t want to terrify them–I want them to enjoy the immersion in this contradictory genre. 

Here’s what I have planned, and yes, it’s ambitious:  After an initial discussion of exactly what autobiography IS, we’ll start with an historical overview and an introduction to some of the theoretical debates and different modes of the genre. Students will read excerpts from several historical autobiographies, two full-length childhood-centered contemporary memoirs, a graphic memoir (Persepolis and excerpts from Maus and Fun Home), and about a dozen excerpts from other contemporary memoirs on subjects ranging from addiction to religion (I know, a risk).  We’ll also spend time on other modes of autobiography such as audio/video, diaries and letters, and blogs. [One final project choice is, indeed, for students to keep a blog all term.]

Here’s where I hope you all come in.  I need me some blogs. Yes, I read dozens of blogs each week, all neatly alphabetized in my Google Reader, but they are all, you know, about academics.  I know that Roxie’s typist is having her students read her own blog for her course this fall on blogging (which I can’t wait to read about), but no, I won’t be offering up this particular blog for their reading pleasure. Besides, I want them to discover blogs that are personal (so not just politics or celebrity gossip) but also of interest to them.

Have any ideas for blogs that are autobiographical in nature and that might appeal to our non-traditional students, ages 16-65? Is there an index of sorts I could direct students to? Please let me know in the comments.

Kindle Update: My new chocolate Kindle cover has a paperback book inside it now since it looked so sad, so lonely.  Estimated delivery of the new Kindle itself  is now mid-late September.

Love Pray Eat

That’s right. I changed the order after reading Roger Ebert’s review the other day, a review that concludes like so:

The audience I joined was perhaps 80 percent female. I heard some sniffles and glimpsed some tears, and no wonder. “Eat Pray Love” is shameless wish-fulfillment, a Harlequin novel crossed with a mystic travelogue, and it mercifully reverses the life chronology of many people, which is Love Pray Eat.”

I haven’t seen the film, though I will, probably sometime next year on Netflix.  But I have read the book, twice. The first time I read it as a beach read when it came out in paperback in 2007 or so, mostly because of the Italy chapters (I was planning a trip to Italy), which I still like the best because of the descriptions of Rome, Venice and the yummy food (I, too, went on a quest for the perfect gelato, though if I ate as much as Gilbert ate, I, too, would have gained instead of lost weight. Yes, I lost weight in Italy–all that walking everywhere). 

The second time I read it was last week: I’m teaching a Memoir course this fall, and I’m anticipating at least a few students will ask me why I didn’t include Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on the syllabus.  (One student  already has emailed me about the book, interestingly.)

It reads better the second time, mostly because I’m already over the “she’s so full of herself” response that many readers have to the self she presents us (beautiful, talented woman with a book contract gets to travel the world and eventually meet Felipe, who seems to be a combination of the Old Spice Guy and Antonio Bandaras).

Or, maybe this time, just two weeks before I’m required on campus and the whirlwind of academic life begins again, I was just more willing to enjoy the ride.

I’ve spent  months reading dozens of autobiographies and memoirs in preparation for this class, and this one was one of the few (Under the Tuscan Sun comes close) that was such pure fantasy.   The Italian twins (one shy and scholarly; one more stereotypical Italian). The all-knowing yet still dripping in sarcasm Richard from Texas.  The Australian hotty who thinks e-mail is too impersonal. And, of course, Felipe, the Brazilian gem merchant who spends hours physically pleasuring our Elizabeth.  Add the lovingly detailed food of Italy, skim the Pray sections, pausing only when Richard’s name is mentioned, and leap to the sex in Bali and this is a great end-of-summer read.

In keeping with the romance/fantasy plot structure of the story (not that there’s anything wrong with that), our Elizabeth remains celibate for most of the book, with moments of sensual release through food in Italy, yoga and meditation in India, and finally, after months of such foreplay, including an aside on the sudden ineffectiveness of her usual masturbatory fantasies involving firemen or Bill Clinton, sex with our Antonio Bandaras/Old Spice man in Indonesia.

On NPR last week, I heard an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she discussed her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage*, and while her marriage to Felipe (aka Antonio) sounds sweet, she had no problem admitting that he is, on a daily basis, quite boringly consistent.   

I’m guessing few students will ask me to add that one to the reading list.

*Time magazine’s Mary Pols has an interesting comparative analysis between Gilbert’s and Julie Powell’s (of Julia and Julia) books on marriage, preferring the more self destructive Powell to the tedious Gilbert–Powell’s is called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession).

MLA Travel Story

One car, two planes, one taxi and 13 hours later I arrived at my hotel in Philadelphia.  It’s not anyone’s fault that the weather in Philly created major delays all day, so that by the time my plane arrived, we couldn’t land (seems there has been nearly 2 inches of rain here combined with snow melt today). We did get to spend a lovely hour at the Baltimore airport to refuel, during which we were not given anything to drink or eat, and using the toilets that no longer flushed was not advised.

Luckily the couple next to me offered me a delicious homemade holiday cookie to keep any hunger at bay.  It’s raining heavily in Philadelphia, though, so when I finally arrived at the hotel, I was relieved to find a relatively affordable hotel bar with decent food: a glass of wine and a veggie panini can be divine…

I did get some reading done, so being stuck on a plane wasn’t all bad:

  • Loved Joan Acocella’s review of the new prosey Chaucer translation in The New Yorker.
  • Finally read Three Cups of Tea:   yes, Mortensen sounds positively saint-like, and some chapters were engaging and interesting, but I found myself skipping a lot, especially toward the end. 
  • Read Allison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs (1984), a Pulitzer Prize winning academic novel.  It’s  a tragicomedy, more tragic than many academic novels. Even though the two English profs discover something about love and passion, and their own complicity in their inability to find lasting love and passion, I don’t see it as the grand comedy that contemporary reviewers (looking at the back of my used copy) seemed to deem it.  It’s definitely Jamesian (as the narrative constantly reminds us). The two main characters, 29 year old Fred Turner (asst prof and untenured) and 54 year old Virginia Miner (full prof), both from what is probably Cornell but on sabbatical at the same time in London, take turns telling their tales in alternate chapters.  Virginia’s meditations on middle aged sex are briliant. At first she seems to resign herself to the sex-lessness of being a middle aged woman since, for one reason, such women never have sex in English litererature. Then she meets a large, sort of sexy,  nearly 60 year old Oklahoman man and, eventually, she is much less inclined to think about giving up sex: “And this world, Vinnie [Virginia’s nickname] thinks now, is not English literature. It is full of people over fifty who will be around and in fairly good shape for the next quarter century: plenty of time for adventure and change, even for heroism and transformation.” But, despite this big breakthrough, she loses the Oklahoman man, and although she does a few selfless acts at the end of the novel, I fear she’ll return to Cornell and be her usual spinsterish selfish mostly sexless self.

But I did enjoy the novel, and I’ll look for more Lurie to read (or reread?) in the future.  It’s definitely a novel of the middle aged, if I want to pursue that idea someday…

Now, off to bed. The weather report says that tomorrow is the best day of the week, and I’m looking forward to my free morning to explore.  There are a few MLAers in the lobby and the restaurant, but it’s obviously the lull before the enslaught tomorrow…

What I Know Now

pink_imnotdeadA colleague and friend invited me to see a play a few weeks ago: we had seen Menopause: The Musical together this summer, so we’re sort of play-going buddies (and kayaking buddies, though since I broke one of her bungee cords last summer she may reconsider that–don’t ask me HOW I broke such a thing): not to mention that once classes begin, we rarely get to see each other and this was one of those rare work-light weekends. 

We went to a community playhouse that was putting on a reading/performance to benefit our women’s resource center.  Five local actresses sat comfortably on cozy sofas, while taking turns reading, and performing, letters written by older women (aged 21-60+) to their younger (aged 4-40) selves. 

The reading/performance was based on Ellyn Spragins’ edited collection of letters, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self, written by 40 famous women, including Maya Angelou, Ann Curry, Olympia Dukakis, Naomi Wolf, etc.  The local actresses read a few of the published essays beautifully, but the most emotionally powerful letters were those written by the actresses themselves and those by some of the audience members—women who participated in a letter writing workshop.

The theatre is cozy, and serves wine, so we, the audience, too, settled in as if in someone’s living room.  Of the 50 or so attendees, only 2 were men, and the women were generally in their 30s-60s.

As the director noted in her post-performance chat with us, she tried to select letters that covered a range of ages and subject, moving from light-hearted (don’t worry my dear 4-year old self: you will pass kindergarten and make friends), to the more serious (I’m sorry my 30 year old self: you will have to suffer from cancer again, but you survive it again, too).  There’s a wonderful song by Pink called “Conversations With My 13-Year-Old-Self”  that  provided, at least in my mind, the soundtrack for this powerful performance.

The letters are all by women, alas: I think it would be fascinating to hear what men would write to their younger selves. I’m curious to know what subjects men would focus on–anyone want to run with that?

Now, I’m not so sure I want to read the book: I suspect there is unevenness, maybe even schmaltziness, to the series of letters.  But, the reading/performance worked for me.

What would I say to my 13 year old self? 

 What comes to mind is just a series of nags:  “Just eat that cookie instead of agonizing over it, and write MORE in that diary with the fake key.”  But also some praise: “How COOL you were to study Latin, to learn to twirl a rifle, and to keep up pen pals from several different continents (obviously, my early blogging tendencies….), and try to write a novel.  You were so incredibly courageous and curious. You’ll lose some of that for a few years while you obsess over boys and sex, but courage and curiosity will come back to you with a vengeance, so be ready for it.”

Young Women Memoirs: Suggestions?

The other night, I held individual conferences with my advanced composition students to discuss their progress on drafting their researched essays.  Since this is a great group of students (I’ve written a little about them here) the 4 hours flew by with conversations ranging from “how do I cite a source that cites another source?”  to “how do I best juggle multiple sources?” to “should I begin by discussing Science Fiction or Dune itself?”

But my last student conference was with a young woman who, uncharacteristically, hadn’t handed in a rough draft to discuss, so I was curious and concerned about her all evening wondering if she would show up.  She did. Her essay is on how children of war are affected morally: a complex, intellectual topic for a first year student.  We briefly discussed her progress on the paper before getting to the real issue: she sheepishly admitted, at the same time dismissing its importance, that she had just broken up with her boyfriend of 5 years (they have been seeing each other since she was 15), and, as a result, she’d been couch surfing all week, thus the missing draft. 

I tried to assure her that it was, indeed, a big deal to break up with a boyfriend, especially one she was with for such a long period in her life, and that I understood completely.  She promised to get me a draft as soon as possible, recognizing that she was now ready to “bury” herself in her school work after a week (!) of mourning.

But here’s where the women’s memoirs come in: she is hiking this summer, alone, on the Appalachian Trail, and hoped to write a memoir about it.  Right now she is keeping a daily journal leading up to the big trip–but she was finding such daily notations unsatisfying.    Yet she didn’t quite get my suggestion that she approach her note taking more organically rather than impose such an artificial structure: I told her to think of the tag clouds in bogs, but she doesn’t read blogs. 

So what I’d like to do is recommend some memoirs for her to read before she heads off to her big hike.  Here are a few I’ve thought of, but I’d love suggestions, especially of works by younger writers that I’ve not included here:

  • Alice Koller/The Unknown Woman or The Stations of Solitude
  • Anne Lamott/Travelling Mercies
  • Annie Dillard/An American Childhood
  • Patricia Hampl/A Romantic Education
  • Dorothy Allison/Trash
  • Sallie Tisdale/Stepping Westward