Here’s my secret: I like to see inside other people’s houses. At dusk, when the lights go on inside and I pass by, I can see their furniture, where the kitchen is, and even where they put the TV. Lucky for me, I found a socially acceptable way to channel that curiosity: I teach memoir writing.
Early this June, in Old City Philadelphia, I opened a metaphorical window and peeked into the lives of others. I taught a three-day memoir workshop at the Philadelphia Writers Conference. For the past eight years, I’ve taught these workshops at senior centers, at Bucks County Community College and at over-fifty developments. Between the time one session ends and another series of classes begins, I sometimes forget how surprisingly beautiful people can be.
Attendees at the Philly Writers Conference in June submitted their stories a few weeks in advance for my critique and as always, their words were heartfelt, moving and inspired. Here are just a few examples.
A little black girl and her family traveled through Mississippi in the 1950s, searching for a bathroom they could use without being arrested. Her work reminded me of Anne Moody’s memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. She grew up to win first prize for memoir at the conference, and told me she was familiar with Moody’s work.
A man traveled to his father’s birthplace in Ireland, searching for clues to the man his father became, the man he knew as a boy. He wrote eloquently about the smell of peat and slurry, and told of the warm welcoming people he met, people who played the violin after a long day’s work on the farm.
A suburban woman fought fiercely to preserve land threatened by development. She saw humorous, tongue-in-cheek parallels between herself and Scarlett O’Hara as she passionately vowed to stand firm and fight.
A young doctor’s growing numbness in her feet led to a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. As both patient and newly minted doctor, her courageous, unvarnished story was not about making lemonade from lemons, but rather of coping with chronic illness from a unique point of view.
An older woman became her father’s caretaker in Port Richmond, the Philly neighborhood where she grew up, and learned an important lesson about herself. How many people this very day in the Philadelphia metro area are living this story?
Philadelphia, it turns out, is a city teeming with stories. In the late 1950s and early 60s, a TV show about New York signed off with the tagline “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.” The 2010 census counted a million and a half people living in Philadelphia, six million if we add in the surrounding metro area. The Big Pretzel (or if you prefer, the Big Cheesesteak) has nearly as many stories as the Big Apple did back in the mid-twentieth century. We could surpass that town to the north by the middle of the 2000s.
Yes, I know, memoirs get a bad rap these days. Critics abound. In a recent New York Times Book Review, Neil Genzlinger said, “Unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon, the way God intended.” People tell me there is too much focus on our selves, too much navel-gazing, and yes, sometimes that’s true. Whining about victimhood or writing a memoir to get even with your parents or your ex is boring and unsatisfying. Revenge only brings up more bitterness. As essayist Annie Dillard said, “While writing is an art, it is not a martial art.”
But as I reflect on my June weekend in Old City, I wonder if there even is such a thing as an unremarkable life. I love a true story told from the author’s point of view, even if I have never before heard their name.
My students take many different approaches to memoir writing. They focus on historical context, the ecology of place, cultural memories, the hidden message of illness and more. And unlike a novel about a character who overcomes evil, disability, or heartbreak, no one can ever say, “It’s just a movie” or “It could never happen that way.”
Fiction writer Lorrie Moore, in the New York Review of Books, said that fiction is not as mesmerizing as the real life tale. “We love to read memoirs,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we?” Sounds like permission for navel gazing to me. And maybe some tastefully judicious window peeping. Strictly in the interest of a well-told Philadelphia-based story.