meredith maran   An Open Book: The Passions and Perils of the Memoirist's Life  
photo of meredith maran, as M'ellen'dith

Meredith, a.k.a. "M'ellen'dith," reading
before the "coming out" episode of Ellen.

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  At brunch the other day, a bunch of author friends were comparing book tour war stories when we discovered one experience we had in common. Although the kinds of books we write and the kinds of people who read them are very different, it turned out that each of us has one Dread Question we're asked every single time we're interviewed. TV, radio, newspapers, book readings, Thanksgiving dinner: same question, every time.

The novelist's DQ is, "Are your novels autobiographical?" The mystery writer's: "How do you come up with those plot twists?" The children's book writer's: "Do you have kids of your own?"

As author of two memoirs, I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that my DQ is, "How can you stand to write so openly about the intimate details of your life?"

The surprising thing is, I still haven't found the right way to answer it.

Sometimes I explain my philosophy about secrecy, and the destructive role it plays in our lives and our society. I say that if today it became impossible for families, corporations, and governments to keep secrets, the world would change--for the better--by tomorrow.

Sometimes I answer by divulging that whenever I visit a friend's house, I go straight to the fridge to check out the contents so I know what's really going on in her life. Brimming with home-cooked abundance? A few expired rolls of film? Juicy-looking date leftovers? A freezer full of vodka, or Chocolate Fudge Brownie? If "God is in the details," the details, I say, are in the fridge. And what is a memoir but the literary equivalent of a well-lit, wide-open refrigerator?

Maybe I've had one of those bad memoirist weeks--perhaps I've received threatening correspondence from a friend, or the attorney of a friend (or "literary victim," as some refer to themselves) whom I've honored by including him or her in one of my books. In that case I might answer with a deep groan and a few repetitions of the MA (Memoirists Anonymous) vow: "I will never write about my own life again. I will never..."

On at least a few occasions I've admitted this: I never really believe my publisher is going to print this stuff I've got running across my Powerbook screen until I'm standing in front of a hundred (or two, or twenty) people at a reading, holding a copy of a book with my name on the cover, and I find myself blushing as I speak the words aloud. One striking example: the time I was facing an enthusiastic audience in a gay bookstore, about to read the most erotic chapter of my book, and I looked up to see my (Republican) uncle (who I hadn't seen for twenty years, and for good reason) slipping into a chair in the back.

If I'm feeling Hemingwayish, I say, "I just open a vein--my own, or that of someone near and dear to me--and bleed."

If I'm feeling cynical, I say, "It's easier than doing real research."

If I'm feeling Buddhist, I say, "What does privacy matter? I'm just a speck in the universe anyway."

If I'm feeling really cynical I say, "Because they pay me really well to do it."

I guess the real answer is, all of the above--plus this: there's something deeply and uniquely satisfying about reaching as deep inside myself as my flying fingers will go, finding what feels truest, and holding it up to the light of public scrutiny. Whether praised or reviled, the memoirist is cursed and blessed to be fully if embarrassingly responsible for that which is published in her name.
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Copyright © 1997 Meredith Maran.