Attack of the killer memoir
IT’S THE ASPIRING young middle-class writer’s worst-case scenario. You get to college armed with pages of prose that capture the soul-sucking torpor of your suburban adolescence, only to find yourself in a writing class with a former child soldier who spent years fighting the Revolutionary United Front after his Sierra Leone village was torched and his entire family killed. And the guy can actually write!
As you sit there, wiping your eyes while the class discusses the astonishing detail with which he’s described AK-47 rifles and blood-soaked babies, you have a sudden urge to run -- not because the imagery is so intense but because your story is up for discussion next and it’s about getting drunk at the senior prom and losing your purse.
I’m not saying this went on at Oberlin College where Ishmael Beah, now in his mid 20s, began to write about the experiences that would eventually make up the bestselling and much-ballyhooed “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” But I’ve been in enough writing workshops, as a teacher and a student, to know what it feels like to have your literary thunder stolen by someone who actually has something to say. It seems like an especially unfair advantage at a small, private liberal arts college where, except for the lucky few who lost their virginity to their shrinks or who had Russian spies for parents, so many would-be writers are going to be pretty much stuck writing about summer camp.
But we live in a world full of not just summer camps but refugee camps and genocides and unimaginably violent civil wars. And now that Beah has turned out a coming-of-age memoir that makes even the most gothic childhood sob stories look like “The House at Pooh Corner,” he may have closed the book on an entire literary genre.
I mean, what twentysomething self-respecting memoirist (if that’s not an oxymoron) would want to get in the ring with a guy who not only survived the front lines in Sierra Leone but made it all the way to Oberlin -- and majored not in English but political science? Even more vexing, Beah is attractive, well-spoken and does not appear to be adapting his book into a screenplay; he is serving on the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee, which only makes many of his fellow memoirists look extra ridiculous.
Attention solipsistic young scribes: all the bad boyfriends, clueless parents and junior years abroad are no match for the child soldier. Better go back to whatever you were doing before you started writing about yourself. Just don’t go to Starbucks, because Beah’s book is being sold there, and you’ll just feel worse.
I KNOW, I KNOW. There’s room in the marketplace for all kinds of books and, as I have told students many times, you can write about something as banal as teeth flossing as long as you a) write it well and b) infuse the subject with some kind of universal relevance (flossing as a rite-of-passage metaphor, for instance).
But here’s the catch. If you’re going to write something compelling and salable about an inherently dull subject (for example, most people’s lives up until about age 45), you’d better be not only gifted but possessed of some pretty serious literary craft. However, most almost-too-young-for-memories memoirists, gifted or not, just don’t have the chops to turn their summer camp reminiscences into “This Boy’s Life” for the new millennium.
That’s why, over the last several years, probably the most successful category for memoirists of any age could be called “I Crossed Over to the Dark Side” lit.
Among the younger set, the typical Dark Side trajectory goes like this: author has unresolved childhood issues (distant father, overbearing SAT-prep instructor), author makes a bad decision (enters bad marriage, tries heroin, drops out of Brown to become a prostitute) and then seeks salvation through a creative-writing workshop that results in a juicy, maybe even Oprah-worthy memoir.
But now that Beah has raised the bar to oxygen-depriving heights, I suspect we won’t be seeing as many of these titles. After all, the literary world is just a higher-stakes version of a college writing workshop.
You can be the most talented student in class, but if you’re unlucky enough to have grown up in a stable home, you need to work that much harder to find a story worth telling.
In other words, you need to write fiction. And if there’s anything that can mess up a life more than trying heroin, it’s trying to write a novel.