Whenever Claire Dederer comes to visit my memoir class at the University of Washington, I remember the early excitement of being a new writer, of being hungry to write. She inevitably gets the class worked into a froth with her smartypants talk about writing. The first time she came to visit, she made the point that the biggest mistake memoirists fall into is confusing the events of the story with the essence of the book (that, in fact, the backbone of a memoir is the narrative arc of the narrator’s transformation, a statement I wrote about at length on Huffington Post and anywhere else I could get someone to listen. This week, Claire came for another class visit and once again she inspired me to think about memoir in a larger way, not just in terms of my own writing but in terms of the importance of the genre and in light of the question I often return to “Why memoir right now?” What cultural need is this genre filling?
In class, Claire talked about how we as writers of memoir share our own vulnerabilities and put ourselves outside of our own comfort zones so that our readers might find comfort in our experiences, referencing Lisa Jones, author of the memoir Broken: A Love Story, who describes the role of the memoirist like this, “You’re simply a nice carpenter who has helped make a shelter for other people’s uneasiness by exposing your own.”
After class a few of us were talking about the fear we experience before we share or publish a piece that reveals something particularly personal when Claire made the point that reading memoir allows us to see our own lives in a new way, particularly the aspects of our lives that happen behind closed doors. As we talked of how memoir allows us to bring the private sphere into the public one and why that’s important, particularly for women, I remembered how Claire had also spoken in class of how the feminist movement of the 1970s and her own mother’s experience in the 70s had inspired and possessed her before and during the writing of Poser (read Claire’s great piece about her interest in 1970s feminism in the Nation).
And then it occurred to me, that memoir is not just a literary movement; it’s a social one, and I found myself saying, “It’s a groovy sort of revolution, memoir. Isn’t it?”
“It is,” said Claire.
And then we went for a drink. And as the great Hemingway once said, “It was good.”
Here’s the interview I did with Claire for my blog Writing Is My Drink.
Theo: What was it like to write so openly about your life and especially about your marriage?
Claire: My husband and I were lucky–during the period I was working on the book, the wife of one of his friends published a very personal memoir about their marriage. So we both read that book and used it as a kind of yardstick. My husband said he could live with that level of exposure.
Theo: What does your writing time look like? Do you have a routine?
When I was working on this book, I wrote every day for eight hours, sort of a grind-it-out work ethic. But I got the most done by going away for a few days every month and just staying up all night writing every night. I’m a night person by nature, so when I’m away from my family I can indulge that and get a ton done. Incidentally, I recently read a study that said that night owls have higher IQs than early birds. Which was great to hear after years of hearing people (ie my husband) be smug about being early risers. Suck it, early birds!
Theo: What parts of the writing process do you love? Loathe?
Claire: Love the feeling that I’m solving a huge puzzle. Loathe the part of writing a book that no one told me about: the fifteen pounds you gain.
Theo: I hear you! It’s like the freshman fifteen. When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
Claire:When I was in first or second grade. I always had at least a couple Mead spiral notebooks on the go. My early work involved a lot of girls from olden days living in orphanages and wearing their hair in long braids. .
Theo: What are some of the ways you’ve built your platform as a writer?
Claire: I’ve made my living as a writer since I became a staff critic at the Seattle Weekly about fifteen years ago. Once I had my first child and quit the paper, I freelanced. So I’ve never focused on building my platform–instead I focused on getting the next freelance gig. My strategy was to stair step upward–a piece at Seattle Weekly gave me a clip to send to the Chicago Tribune, which gave me a clip to send to Newsday, which gave me a clip to send to The New York Times, where I freelanced frequently for many years.
With Poser I turned my attention to memoirs that are structured around something outside the memoirist. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage was very important to me. It starts out with his slightly bonkers obsession with D.H. Lawrence and ends up being a very intimate self-portrait of Dyer himself. Other examples: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which is ostensibly about soccer but is really about his parents’ divorce. Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, which organizes a coming-of-age story around her favorite songs. Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, a memoir of his wife that is really a self-portrait of the writer as husband. And of course Laurie Colwin, who is my favorite writer. Her Home Cooking books are about food, but also give a rich picture of her domestic life.
Theo: Couldn’t agree more with the Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage pick. That’s one of my all-time favorite books. The subtitle of Poser is “My Life in 23 Poses.” Why 23 poses?
The number of poses varied over the course of writing. I wrote a bunch of the poses first, like little essays, and then realized that process was preventing me from finding the larger arc of the book. Once I had written the whole book, I went back and organized the pose material. 23 just seemed right. Any more and I think it would have felt too disjointed.
Theo: Why do you return to–my favorite yoga pose–the child’s pose (I think 3 times)?
I return to child’s pose over and over as a way of organizing the flashback material in the book. I really wanted to underpin my story as a mom with the story of my own mother. Child’s pose seemed like a natural pose to use to frame that material.
Theo: Had you published personal essays before this book? (I noticed that there’s a bit of your mom’s story in the Nation piece about Erica Jong.)
I had published personal essays in two anthologies, and I had written many essays over the years for publications including Seattle Weekly, Vogue, and Real Simple. I’ve worked as a film critic and a book critic for many years, and I have always tried to incorporate elements of personal essay into my critical writing. I believe strongly that reviews really reflect one person’s opinion, not some authoritative judgment from on high. Folding personal essay material into a review reiterates that more openly subjective approach.
Theo: What’s your favorite writing tip?
Don’t save your good material, your good image, your good writing for later. Use it now.
ABOUT CLAIRE DEDERER
Claire Dederer’s bestselling memoir Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses came out in January 2011 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and was published in the UK by Bloomsbury. Poser has been translated into 11 languages.
Claire is a longtime contributor to The New York Times. Her articles have appeared in Vogue, Real Simple, The Nation, New York, Yoga Journal, on Slate and Salon, and in newspapers across the country. Her writing has encompassed criticism, reporting, and the personal essay.
Before becoming a freelance journalist, she was the chief film critic at Seattle Weekly.
With her husband Bruce Barcott, Claire has co-taught writing at the University of Washington. She currently works with private students.
A proud fourth-generation Seattle native, Claire lives on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound with her family.