Monday, June 22, 2009

Reading Writer's Memoirs, Briefly Sort Of

The first writer's memoir I read, I think I was fourteen or something and figured my life would never ever be as interesting or bizarre as Rexroth's during his years in BohemianlibertarianWobbly Chicago.

Memoirs are all the rage these days, and now is not really the time for me to talk about my feelings on that score. I will say that Phoenix Books has a superb memoir selection. And that it took almost a dozen boxes to haul it over to its new location. And that one of the books has the word, "Sexperiments" in the title.

I would like to add a few comments about writer's memoirs though. Ones I've read, and one, especially I want to read. And perhaps others I'm considering reading.

The few memoirs I've read have been by writers who have lived through emblematic or formative cultural periods in history. Whether it was because the world was actually changing, or it just so happened that tons of talented people were working together at the same place and at the same time, such sweeping historical context gives these memoirs an exciting and often enviable savor.

One of the most fascinating, informative books I've ever read about becoming a writer and a memoir that deals especially beautifully with the mechanics, psychology, sacrifices and neuroses behind the writing process.

Everyone can point to such classic times in history, give them a city name and a decade and a whole zeitgeist is brought to life. Mostly the cities are either New York or Paris. In the 20's, or the 30's, or the 70's. And then there's San Francisco in the 60's. Or really most places in the 60's. Seattle in the 90's. But that's more for music.

I'm not sure where the center of writerly innovation was in the 90's or if there even was one. Probably New York, Los Angeles, San Diego. Wherever Generation X authors first got famous. And then again the whole MFA thing certainly changes the geography of cultural innovation. Perhaps Irvine in the late 80's was akin to Paris of the 20's just because a dozen future Pulitzer Prize winners went to school there. Who knows? And really, broadly speaking, such things don't really matter except after the fact, when the writer sits down to write his or her memoir and realizes that they participated in a critical time in cultural history.

Not a memoir, Shattuck's The Banquet Years is a cultural anaylsis of the origins of the Avant-Garde in France. Featuring the colorful lives of Jarry, Apollinaire, Rousseau and Satie. A must-read. Like the memoirs I mention, this book is a special case of how artists interwove their talents to express a force of history that we feel today, like light from a distant star.

Most of these writer's memoirs are heavy on the name-dropping but not really for any self-aggrandizing reasons, considering that when they penned the memoirs they had already achieved enough fame based on their own merits. Mostly the name-dropping, the brief profiles of other writers and artists is to present the memoir less as a personal document and more as a cultural-historical document that pivots on their own consciousness.

Sometimes I guiltily fantasize about being That Writer way down the road of life, both figuratively and literally who has time to kick back and finally pen his memoir, who can belt out a rollicking 300 page yarn about his accomplishments, failures, adventures and learning experiences, and also about the ones of the people he knew and loved and sought counsel from. Maybe they were metalsmiths or balloonists or short story writers or steampunk ballerinas or filmmakers or radical gay libertarians. Or just teachers, mothers, fathers, gas station attendants, soup kitchen volunteers and gardeners. But we knew each other intimately, these were our shared hard times and we worked hard for what we wanted to express. Right after Bush destroyed our country and Obama disappointed some of us and we all lived in San Francisco or Portland or Davis or San Diego and nobody was making much money. But things like urban farming, sex worker parties, rooftop gardening and bicycling were on the rise, and we all felt like even as the ruins were already growing, that counter-ruins were containing them, fecund, fertile, growing as we grew . .

Ah, but that story's been told before I think. Maybe. We'll see how life plays out. But I wonder if I'm living in an epochal cultural phase and don't know it yet. Which means in order to find out I need to help fulfill it, right?

The one I want to read by the late Harold Norse.

And onward to my final instance of what I wanted to say.
Which brings me to a book that is probably the greatest memoir I haven't read yet. Especially in light of what I've been talking about.

Memoirs Of A Bastard Ange
l by the late Harold Norse who died less than two weeks ago. Go find it and read it. I plan on doing the same once I finish all the other books piling up on my shelf.

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