Memoirs have been around for a long time, but their occurrence increased significantly around 1990. Interest in that literary category has continued, growing 400 percent between 2004 and 2008 alone, which has led many to call our era the Age of Memoir. As way of explanation for that success, Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project, said, “It is simply so much easier and so much more acceptable to be one. Then there is the fact that it feels good. Why? That old truth about an examined life. It settles the mind. It makes us sure of things. Nothing quite like it.”
Three of my favorite reads right now are memoirs. Two come from a scientific point of view, written by scientists who approach their research with a personal passion. In reading about their deep connection with their work, I see so many similarities with the way artists connect with their creative explorations and meanderings.
Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren, is utterly engaging. Her invitation steps you in close to life. Her book has changed the way I view trees and the complexity of the ecosystem. The crossovers with art are frequent.
For example, this description of her lab rings familiar:
My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all of the things that I am getting done. My uncalled parents, unpaid credit cards, unwashed dished, and unshaved legs pale in comparison to the noble breakthrough under pursuit. My lab is a place where I can be the child that I still am…
My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe…There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don’t….My lab is a refuge and an asylum. It is my retreat from the professional battlefield; it is the place where I coolly examine my wounds and repair my armor. And, just like church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.
Lab or studio, scientist or artist, Jahren’s description captures how a space can hold what is so essential when the passionate core of a person is being tapped.
That close parallel is also evident in her one line description of science:
Science is an institution so singularly convinced of its own value that it cannot bear to throw anything away.
Janna Levin is the author of the memoir, How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space. The book began with letters Levin wrote to her mother exploring and explaining this primal question at the core of her research: Is the universe infinite or is it just really big? A cosmologist by training, she is a masterful translator of complex, esoteric notions of space and time into comprehensible explanations. Her voice is poetic as well as clarifying:
No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory—except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite…
The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space, and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.
The third in this stack is a book many of my artist friends have been raving about since it appeared last year: Hold Still, by Sally Mann. I read the reviews and heard the praises, but I was resistant. I didn’t think a photographer’s memoir sounded all that compelling, and I also wasn’t particularly interested in revisiting the controversy of Mann’s 1990 exhibit that featured images of her naked children. That controversy still dogs her and her work, and I had assumed this would be a rehashing of those issues.
Too many preconceptions and prejudices! What I didn’t know is that Sally Mann is a gifted writer as well as an accomplished photographer. She studied creative writing before she even began taking pictures, and her verbal skills are commanding.
Speaking of memory, for example:
Whatever my memories hadn’t crumbled into dust must surely by now have been altered by the passage of time. I tend to agree with the theory that if you want to keep a memory pristine, you must not call upon it too often, for each time it is revisited, you alter it irrevocably, remembering not the original impression left by experience but the last time you recalled it. With tiny differences creeping in at each cycle, the exercise of our memory does not bring us closer to the past but draws us farther away.
I had learned over time to meekly accept whatever betrayals memory pulled over on me, allowing my mind to polish its own beautiful lie. In distorting the information it’s supposed to be keeping safe, the brain, to its credit, will often bow to some instinctive aesthetic wisdom, imparting to our life’s events a coherence, logic, and symbolic elegance that’s not present or not so obvious in the improbable, disheveled sloppiness of what we’ve actually been through. Elegance and logic aside, though, in researching and writing this book, I knew that a tarted-up form of reminiscence wouldn’t do, no matter how aesthetically adroit or merciful. I needed the truth, or, as a friend once said, “something close to it.” That something would be memory’s truth, which is to scientific, objective truth as a pearl is to a piece of sand. But it was all I had.
What a great passage. And there are so many more.
The epigraph that begins Mann’s book parallels the passage above but it also speaks to the genre as a whole:
The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye
See as honestly as they know how, but they lie.
–W. H. Auden
Truth or lies, a memoir done right is irresistible.