Everyone believes they have a story to tell…but does everyone have a memoir in them? We ask nonfiction professor Emily Rapp, the author of two bestselling memoirs, Poster Child and The Still Point of the Turning World, the hard questions. (And then one about cheese, as we believe it’s important for everyone to be educated on tasty cheeses.)
I actually believe that everyone’s life IS interesting. Human beings are fascinating – without us, there would be no stories, no drama. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t have fascinating qualities, even if they didn’t, from their own perspective, feel remotely interesting. What does that even mean, in the end? In a sense, people are only made interesting via story, because before you can know someone, they have to tell you who they are, and then the tale weaving begins. In terms of having an interesting story, you don’t have to survive a plane crash to write a good memoir. May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude is hardly a Die Hard-action-esque book in which exciting stuff happens. There’s no addiction, no trauma, no drama. It’s about being alone, about how to do that, how to be alone as a human being, and it’s riveting. What she does with language, landscape, and, most of all, the way she invites the reader into her spinning mind – all of that is of great interest. It’s actually one of my favorite memoirs, in part because of its hyper focus that, far from being an exercise in naval-gazing, is an earnest attempt to be more open and engaged with the world, with humanity and thought and place. What makes an interesting memoir, then, is not that you’ve had an interesting experience, but that you’re able to write about it in a compelling and universally appealing way. How is the story being told, in what way? Is it beautiful to read? Does it make a gesture toward inclusion? Is it generous? These are questions that memoir needs to ask itself. A memoir should read more like a novel than anything else. It needs to track a narrator’s journey and change and transformation. It needs to have a structure, it needs to exclude as much as it includes. You don’t get any credit for having an interesting life. You only get credit, as an artist at least, for making it interesting to other people. End of rant!
You’ve written two memoirs, but have also published fiction, poetry and journalism as well, so when you sit down to write do you always know what form you’re going to explore? Or is there one that’s the default for you?
Well, since Tod Goldberg once told me that I’m like the soft serve yogurt machine of essays, I suppose that personal essay is my default. Just kidding. I do feel comfortable in the personal essay form, if only because it is so generous and flexible. And there are certain things I want to say or explicate in that form in particular, and in the past three years that’s been the form that seemed the best container for the issues I was obsessed with exploring and understanding. I also have assignments from editors, and in that sense the form is set for me. What I love about my recent return to fiction is a) nobody cares if I ever finish this novel; and b) I am not a character in the story. What a relief. I never thought I’d write ONE memoir, let alone two. But those stories needed to be in that form, because they were true, and because nonfiction provided the unique and necessary platform. I’m relieved, finally, to have returned to fiction. To made up people in a (partially) made up world.
When a student comes to you with their nonfiction idea, are there a few books you immediately tell them to read? For instance, should everyone read Joan Didion before they even attempt nonfiction? Or are there a few recent books that have captivated you?
I tell them to read Sarton’s book; A Grief Observed, by CS Lewis; Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy; Confessions, by St. Augustine; and finally, if they’re still speaking to me at this point, Appetites by Caroline Knapp. A recent book that blew off the top of my head was The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit. All of these books are beautiful, ask a lot of questions of the reader and of the world, have an intellectual bent, and are distinguished by amazing sentence writing and lyrical moments. Also, the Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. That book is an absolute wonder.
Have you noticed any particular trends in nonfiction?
Memoir, of course, has been trendy, so to speak, since Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. What’s great about nonfiction is that because the form is so weird and funky and unwieldy to begin with, it’s almost impossible to track trends. That said, recent books like those by Solnit and Jamison are not only deeply intellectual and emotionally complex, but spend a lot of time talking about OTHER PEOPLE. I find this a happy and refreshing trend, especially in a genre that is often accused of being nothing more than advanced naval gazing.
Now, a hard hitting question about your own life: What’s your favorite cheese?
I like Gruyere in fondue and baked Brie or raw Brie or Brie on a cracker or an apple slice. I’m also a fan of super stinky cheese. The kind that’s meant to make you step back a bit when you open the refrigerator door. I dig that.