A Memoirist’s Manifesto

These are scary times–if extreme right-wing semi-fascist rhetoric scares you. It scares me, so I’ve found myself huddling, a little depressed, a little beaten down. I’m not talking about your religion or your political orientation. I’m talking about the extremes that many of my Christian and Republican friends are appalled by.

The language of hate and exclusion creeps into society like a cancer, a fungus. When the solution to a problem is framed in terms of “Who should we get rid of?” the intolerance poisons not just relations between those in control and the targets, but among all people within the community. Trust is universally lowered. Polarizing rhetoric sets an electric charge in the air; who is the next “us” against the next “them”? Everyone gets defensive and edgier. Anyone could be the next target. The chilling effect of threatened repression is what tempts people to draw back into themselves and to seek whatever form of safety they might imagine. I’ve been feeling it.

One important solution to political repression is to tell your story: memoir, memoir, and more memoir. I believe in memoir not just as entertainment but as a solution that reveals how complicated and intertwined our lives all are.

Me, as one example: if you want to kick out the Buddhist democratic-socialist labor activists, be sure to put my name on the list. Seriously. My mama didn’t know her baby would grow up to be an activist memoirist, but she’s survived it. I’ve been in so many activist groups and coalitions that I’ve lost count of all the acronyms. Is that scary? It shouldn’t be. I didn’t plan to be this way; that’s just where I’m drawn–and all that activity is completely allowed in a democracy. Yep, I’m a patriot working hard to make this country better. And I write about it–I write memoir that often involves politics, not to preach but to explore (although I sometimes editorialize).

But I also love a lot of people who are described as hopelessly Trump-loving white rural working-class and lower-middle-class Midwestern, people who like guns and the right to bear arms. Complicated. I love the complexity, and I won’t give any of it up. My mom is an immigrant, as are my dad’s parents. My mom’s dad and grandfather were socialist anti-Nazi activists before World War II. My mom’s parents lived through the Hitler regime in Germany; the threat of fascism isn’t an academic black-and-white photo. It’s been a haunting consuming fog, mulling over this country’s foolish flirtation with extreme ideas as a stand-in for adult problem-solving.

Sometimes I have worried that so much of my political life is online and/or in my writing. I have chiefly worried that my politics would lead to discrimination and block employment opportunities. But my family’s history–and my own study of that history–has made me realize that trying to burrow into safety and anonymity might be a personal privilege, but one that is dangerous to the body politic.

In other words, the act of “memoiring” into family stories has changed my story and my relationship to my past.

If you’re feeling unmoored, I suggest that you read a memoir about this great diverse country. We are anxious about the truth because there is so little to go around; the lack of oxygen is suffocating.

It’s funny that those with little power are excoriated for speaking about their memories—so “domestic,” so “quiet,” so “self-centered” —while massive dehumanizing lies and radical acts of inattention are issued from governing bodies. I don’t think these two threads are disconnected. Some would prefer that we wake up and remember nothing. They would prefer the fantasy that we believe what we are fed.

We are told that writing our own accounts is “selfish.” This the desperate attempt to shame us into silence.

I believe that every single scrap of memory—every smell, every can of soup, every turn of flesh—is a victory against the void and the prefabricated, the false statistics and sound bites filled with hate or oversimplification and erasure.

I believe that remembering is never selfish and that individual experience opens spaces where complex and real political solutions among diverse people can be found. Memoir is not selfish, but massaging the truth and shaping it for profit and corporate gain is the ultimate act of self-centered egomania.

Crafting beauty from a rescued photo is resistance. Individual fondnesses in the face of global threats is the point.

Raising questions, making tenuous connections—these are our work and they are a route to salvage our humanity and reorient our compasses. We have to remember that in our real stories, we are all complicated, and our stories are all entwined together.


Baking Cakes: A Female Memoirist’s Question-esto

You are a female memoirist.

Screen Shot 2015-06-04 at 1.50.58 PMYou sometimes feel like an unreliable narrator of your own story. You are part of a vast machine of culinary production, and you feel strangely removed from the formulaic confection you have helped make.

The problem is the series of cake pans you have been given, the containers into which you are told you should pour your story. There’s a whole bakery: cupcake tins, Bundt cake pans with ridges, double-cylindrical Angel food cake pans, round pans for a birthday layer cake.

You are assured that if you make a cake—instead of, say, a roasted goat on a skewer—your readers will understand and appreciate the reliable predictable substance, the airy regular texture, the sweetness on the palate.

You undertake this challenge of subtlety. You diligently mix your recipe, sneaking in the hint of saffron, mint, grated lemon zest—the notes you believe that the light cake might bear without collapsing.

You are told to add kisses, and so you do. You are told to add wishes, and so you do. And shopping and love, and moments of weakness, and so you do. And it all sounds like you, after a fashion. And you are told to make the story make sense, and make it evenly shaped and smooth. And you do.

Others get to ice and decorate the cake, to package and deliver it, to shelve it. You hope for the best. You hope someone will take the time to taste the flecks of individuality in your cake.

Commentators who are not inclined to eat cake, who pride themselves on their serious diets, receive it and dismiss it as just another cake. But, you say to yourself, I was told to make a cake.

The terrible problem, you realize, is that you have begun to think of your life as a series of cakes. You personally love cake and buy cake, and you enjoy the cakes that others make, and you know that many bakers were born to make cake. But is your story a cake? You do not know. You do not actually know how long you have thought of your story as a cake, but you suspect it goes all the way back to the first stories. You are not sure you know how to think yourself outside of a cake-shaped container.

Does this make you unreliable? Do you even like cake? You imagine a cake-less universe, and you wonder what else might be consumed.

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Activist Memoir: Oil and Honey

I wrote an essay recently, “The Final Bakesale,” in As It Ought To Be, about the challenge of conveying climate change as a narrative that grabs people emotionally. Bill McKibben’s memoir, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activistoilandhoneybookpage, is a fantastic braided story that addresses this very issue, weaving back and forth between two narratives: McKibben’s wild activist life on the road and his longing to return to a bee farm he’s helping to support in his home state of Vermont.
Bill McKibben started the organization 350.org in 2009 with 7 undergraduates from Middlebury College, where he once taught. Since then, 350.org has become a global hub that coordinates action and awareness about the looming threat of climate change. I love what 350.org does, but I picked up Oil and Honey with a bit of trepidation. I knew I was going to read it, because what he has to say is so important, but I knew it would sting, as any story of impending apocalypse would.
The challenge with this topic for a writer is daunting yet instructive: how to communicate massive amounts of scary information without shutting down one’s reader emotionally. McKibben–a writer with a long history of publications who started out at the New Yorker in the 1980s–soars in this book.
He doesn’t shy away from delivering information, numbers and data about the number of degrees temperatures are rising and the maximum carbon the planet’s atmosphere can carry before we face species die-off, weather changes that result in all kinds of catastrophes including life-threatening storms, rising seas, and alterations to agriculture. (Spoiler alert: we’re there).
His first technique for making this readable and less scary is to weave the information in with his narrative of joy, which is the story of Kirk, his beekeeper friend who’s completely off the grid and who’s found a way to chemical-free way to breed bees that are resistant to the mites that threaten bee populations around the world. I learned a lot about bees and beekeeping, and the information and the character of Kirk posit a thread of hope tempered with the idea that we are as vulnerable as the bees in the hive unless we work together.
The second technique is McKibben’s vulnerability as a narrator. That’s right–he’s a main character in this memoir. He opens up to reveal his tension in the role of being an activist on the go; he’s a writer, he says, and the constant spotlight drains him yet energizes him at the same time. He focuses on his questions and missteps, the anxiety of not knowing what to do next as a leader, and his dilemmas with even acknowledging his role as a leader. He longs to be with his family, his daughter has a health scare, and he’s overwhelmed with the work and the need to be in constant contact. He’s driven to frustration and occasional despair by political negotiations and the funding network of Big Oil and climate change denial.
Yet he presents enough of the beauty and joy he encounters, along with the rock-and-roll lifestyle on the tour bus for one of his campaigns, that you can’t help but want to join him. He focuses on the work and sacrifices, the humor and humanity, of the diverse activists he works with around the globe, and shows the climate change fight as one about people and heart as well as graphs and numbers. What McKibben must have found within himself, and what he conveys on the page, is a sense of hope in community, in action, and in responsiveness to other people.
His techniques are instructive for any writer looking to delve into a challenging subject, and I’d highly recommend the book both for its writing, and for the subject matter, which is one that will affect the lives of everyone in the coming decades.
On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and beyond, McKibben offers inspiration for activists, along with incisive critiques of exactly who the enemy is: Big Oil and its cash, and the seemingly insurmountable odds that only people working together can beat. His inspiring message is that corporations are simple, not nimble, and they can be beaten–possibly–by human beings and their flexibility and creativity.