Now that I’m writing a memoir of my life, I have to admit that sometimes as I write I feel that I am performing my own life. You know: like a performer up on stage singing or dancing with emotions blazing.
I wrote a dissertation years ago called Performing Identities. Actually the full title is Performing Identities: The Spectacle of Multiple Identity in American Women’s Poetry. Although I once lived and breathed this project, I had to look up the title for you as I no longer remembered it. Searching online, I discovered it’s available at three whole libraries–in their archives and, in one case, in their “rare book room.” (Even writing that I am laughing at the thought). I don’t know if the durn thing has ever been read (other than by my dissertation advisors and my friend Wilma Kahn who edited it), except by my parents who thought there were some disgusting passages (especially quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journals about–and I kid you not–nose picking).
That thought reminds me of that Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend dumps him because she suspects him of picking his nose. Actually, there is a Seinfeld episode for almost everything, and I am always quick to remember them. I think of comedians as writers who take performing to the nth degree.
Back in grad school, as I read poetry, I saw that poetry seemed to be the performance of identity–where the poet tries out masks composed of bits of her own identities. I studied the work of symbolic anthropologist Victor Turner who argued that our very lives are performative, so it wasn’t a big step to notice the performance aspect of writing.
But I never felt like I was performing when I wrote poetry or lit crit. Writing my memoir I am engaged in the act of performing my life. It’s as if I stand on stage acting out a part written by myself which I have already lived. What an odd feeling. And yet it’s a feeling of engagement and with it comes a little hint of stage fright.
I started thinking about this subject after blogger Michelle at The Green Study wrote a post which features this marvelous quote: “Writing is a marvelous human endeavor, but to try and suss out the actual human is an exercise in futility.” She argues that we shouldn’t believe that a piece of writing is the writer herself. And I agree with her. For instance, it ticks me off when people read Plath’s poetry as “the true story of Sylvia Plath.”
But the memoir writer does take bits and pieces and large swaths of herself and uses them to create the personae or identities she uses in her work. The work itself performs these identities, making the identities live just as a puppeteer brings the puppets to life.
I wanted to share something I found when I searched online for my dissertation. There is a website called Classify, an experimental classification web service. It made a pie chart of the contents of my dissertation. That means a little scrap of all that work resides on the internet ;).
14 responses to “Performing My Life: Writing Memoir”
Performing our lives…what an interesting thought for us memoir writers. Actually, only since I’ve started blogging (it’s been about four months), has this really come to my consciousness. With the blog, you know that people will immediately be able to read your writing…and while there is satisfaction in that immediate gratification, there is also an intimidation that comes. Many times I’ve posted something and then second-guessed it for fear of what people would think. Blogging has been so good for me in that it’s made me grapple with whether I’m really ready to share certain parts of myself…it is pushing me to be more realistic about what I’ll eventually want to keep and cut in my memoir.
It does become a lot more immediate when you’re blogging because it’s something you’re doing daily or weekly–putting yourself out there. That is a great point about being more realistic. So true.
I enjoyed this this post. It reminds me of people who write about themselves in a comedic way and everyone thinks they are funny all the time. But the person on the page is part of a whole person who maybe isn’t funny except on the page. But that’s just a side thought. I liked everything you wrote here. It really shows the blur between autobiographical fiction and memoir. I’m thinking of a no-man’s-land where real names and pseudonyms meet and play.
Ah, thanks, Wilma. Interesting idea about “the blur between autobiographical fiction and memoir.” I think that’s very true. But what would happen if I took my memoir (when it’s done) and changed the names and called it fiction? Would the reader perceive it the same?
No, I don’t think so….because truth is stranger than fiction.
This may be the best help for me — the frustrated actress! Thanks Luce!
Elyse, I love it!
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I’ve been in serious writing block of my own making. Your post was wonderful and help me put some pieces together tonight.
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I really enjoyed this. I haven’t been writing memoir, but I do remember when I was traveling a lot and writing friends and family that sense that I was “previewing” what I was doing and writing the moment in my head as I was experiencing and savoring moments to share with others. It’s a strange feeling, one I didn’t really like, but hard to put off. Also love what you say about Seinfeld–so true.
Isn’t it?!! (re Seinfeld) It amazes me. Thank you so much for your comments, Deborah. Yes, “previewing” is a great term!
Congratulations on being the subject of a pie chart.
I was drawn here by a tag search of “Sylvia Plath”. I am currently reading her journals (I have yet to find any “nose picking” references) and have started a dialogue about her life and work on my blog. My first post is here-
I hope you might join the conversation.
Keep up the good writing.