Writing Memoirs and Reportage: Camera, or Participant?

If you’re writing a memoir or other form of first-person nonfiction, you must decide from the outset: do you want to be a camera, or a participant? If you’re a camera, you’ll see everything that happens and relay it to your readers in great detail—yet at the same time, you’ll play down or even conceal your own role in all this. As a technique, this allows you to make your version of events and persons as one-sided as you like, without any need to take responsibility for your involvement, whether then or now.

If you’re a participant, on the other hand, you’ll have to admit that yes, in fact you participated actively in the story you’re telling: not only did you see what went on, but you made decisions, you had choices. And this will apply not only to back then, but to the here-and-now as well—a place where you as the flesh-and-blood writer have feelings and thoughts and opinions about what you’re telling us.

This may seem like an artificial opposition that I’m setting up, especially the notion of writers as ultra-divorced “cameras”—yet camera-style narration is a surprisingly common choice in contemporary narrative nonfiction. For examples of what I mean, let’s look at work by three popular writers: Augusten Burroughs, David Sedaris, and the switch-hitter Joan Didion. We’ll begin with Burroughs and early-period Didion, representing camera-style narrators; after that we’ll follow up with Sedaris and the present-day Didion, representing participatory narrators.

First, Burroughs. Here is a typical character description from the second chapter of his memoir, Running With Scissors:

My father was otherwise occupied in his role of highly functional alcoholic professor of mathematics at the University of Massachusetts. He had psoriasis that covered his entire body and gave him the appearance of a dried mackerel that could stand upright and wear tweed. And he had the loving, affectionate and outgoing personality of petrified wood.

In this chapter, the narrator is supposedly giving us an account of his life at the age of 10. Yet clearly a 10-year-old boy couldn’t have written or thought anything like the above. That must mean it comes from the mouth of Burroughs as he is now—yet nowhere in the course of the narrative does Burroughs step into the light as an adult, as himself, someone writing a book. So what is going on? Maybe we are meant to think it is the child who speaks, after all, giving a truthful account of every particular. Yet nowhere in the book can we find an actual child, with a child’s thoughts and feelings; there is only a child-sized ventriloquist’s dummy, with a mental life consisting of lines fed by Burroughs the adult. In another scene, the mother has just asserted she will someday be famous; here is the dummy’s response:

“I know,” I said. The idea that someday we might have our own stretch limousine parked in the driveway instead of that awful brown Dodge Aspen station wagon was so thrilling that I almost couldn’t stop myself from screaming. “You will be famous,” I told her. “I just know it.” I also knew I wanted tinted windows and a mini-bar in the back.

And here is the dummy’s response later on to meeting his mother’s friend, Dr. Finch:

I liked him . . . He certainly didn’t seem a real doctor, the kind of doctor I worshipped. He seemed like he should be in a department store letting kids pee on his lap and whisper brand-name bicycles in his ear.

We can laugh at this sort of thing, of course—and that gives us the answer. That is what is going on; that’s why this memoir is told the way it is. The author wants only two things from us: that we laugh, and that we approve his contempt for the people he has made fun of with such rage. Yet if we think about it, there’s no humor here, only the sadness of an empty narration. Somewhere in Burroughs’s past there was an actual 10-year-old boy—but we don’t know what that boy saw and felt, because Burroughs the angry adult has gotten in the way. Nor we do know why the adult is still angry, or what he may feel besides anger. It’s entertaining only so long as we stay in the same shallow space Burroughs has squeezed himself into.

By comparison, Joan Didion is a far better writer than Burroughs: her style can warm us with pleasure even when the subject is grim. Yet as a story-teller, much of Didion’s power derives from the adroit use of the camera point of view to mislead us. This is especially true of the young Didion, the journalist who produced such celebrated pieces as the essays in the collection Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The title essay in that collection makes a good example. The following is a complete scene from it—quite short, but otherwise a fair representation of how the author constructs all her scenes:

It is a pretty nice day and I am just driving down the Street and I see Barbara at a light.

What am I doing, she wants to know.

I am just driving around.

Groovy,” she says.

It’s a beautiful day, I say.

“Groovy,” she says.

She wants to know if I will come over. Sometime soon, I say.

“Groovy,” she says.

I ask if she wants to drive in the Park but she is too busy. She is out to buy wool for her loom.

Apparently we are supposed to see Barbara as an airhead. But notice how the effect has been achieved. Barbara apparently said several things in this short conversation, most of them quite normal—but only the repetitions of “Groovy” have been left unparaphrased, so as to make the maximum bad impression on us. Meanwhile, Didion presents herself as the relatively sane half of the conversation; she is the one who says it’s a beautiful day, for example. Yet what is really missing in this and all the other scenes in “Slouching” is Didion herself: Didion as a person rather than a camera. What did she think of Barbara back then? What does she think of her today? If Barbara was just an airhead, why did Didion bother to stop and talk? And if she wasn’t just an airhead—if she was also compassionate or creative or any number of possibilities—then why did Didion paint such an incomplete picture of her?

The few reflections that Didion does share with us in “Slouching to Bethlehem” are restricted to generalizations, supposedly insights into history and society: “We were seeing the desperate attempts of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum,” for example. The problem with such pronouncements is that they depend on Didion’s selective eye, on her collection of distorted camera shorts. Any human being in any age can be mocked; it doesn’t have to be Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. By focusing her lens on only the worst moments of the “unequipped children,” as she repeatedly does, the writer leaves out the many other moments which must have occurred when these “children” said or did things that were brave, shrewd, caring, humorous, etc.

Why didn’t the Didion of those days write a fuller, less distorted version of what she saw, one that included herself not just as shadowy narrator, but as visible participant? Perhaps because it would have been messy and technically difficult; or perhaps because she didn’t believe it was possible. Her famous final sentence to the preface of this collection reads as follows: “There is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling someone out.” The sentence sounds so dramatically true because it lacks the qualifications of truth—which is exactly what makes it false. It would been more accurate and less self-dramatizing to say that some journalists and some memoirists sell people out, others don’t.

Now let us turn to our participatory narrators. Like Burroughs, David Sedaris has written funny and terrible things about his childhood—but unlike Burroughs, he has never hesitated to implicate himself as participant and raconteur. Often you encounter both persons in the same paragraph. From “Full House,” in the collection Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim:

My parents were not the type of people who went to bed at a regular hour. Sleep overtook them, but neither the time nor the idea of a mattress seemed very important. My father favored a chair in the basement, but my mother was apt to lie down anywhere, waking with carpet burns on her face or the pattern of the sofa embossed into the soft flesh of her upper arms. It was sort of embarrassing. She might sleep for eight hours a day, but they were never consecutive hours and they involved no separate outfit. For Christmas we would give her nightgowns, hoping she might take the hint. “They’re for bedtime,” we’d say, and she’d look at us strangely, as if, like the moment of one’s death, the occasion of sleep was too incalculable to involve any real preparation.

How clearly it is the storyteller speaking to us about death; and how clearly it is his younger self in the line, “It was sort of embarrassing.”

And once again Joan Didion. This is no longer Didion the reporter, but Didion the memoirist, who in 2005 wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, a piercing account of her relationship with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, the irrational and yet perfectly sensible mourning she experienced after his death by heart attack, and what she sees as contemporary society’s hostility to such mourning. Didion’s style is as rhythmic and sharp as ever, and yet there is a difference between this book and her earlier reportage. Where before she was little more than a ghost, here she holds herself to account. This example is from Chapter 6, a description of a quarrel between herself and her husband:

During the course of the summer, buoyed by the pleasure of Quintana’s wedding and by the apparent success of the pacemaker, his mood had seemed to lift. In the fall it dropped again. I recall a fight over the question of whether we should go to Paris in November. I did not want to go. He said he had a sense that if he did not go to Paris in November he would never again go to Paris. I interpreted this as blackmail. That settles it then, I said, we’re going. He left the table. We did not speak in any meaningful way for two days.

I interpreted this as blackmail. That settles it then, I said, we’re going. Would the Didion of “Slouching To Bethlehem” have described her participation this candidly? Probably not. The relationship involved is different, of course; but more tellingly, so is Didion’s intent as writer. The woman who once wrote of selling out her subjects has a much different purpose this time around. From Chapter 1:

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish. . . . [But this] is a case in which I need more than words to find the meaning. This is a case in which I need whatever it is I think or believe to be penetrable, if only for myself.

The old Didion hid behind the polish of her style; in the face of death, this new Didion seeks to penetrate that polish, to find out what she really does think and believe. It is our good luck that she takes us with her.

And in our own writing, we too must decide what sort of narrator we want to be: clever camera, or vulnerable participant? I vote for participant. We do better for ourselves and for others to widen rather than shrink our circle of caring; to reject the idea that “writers are always selling someone out,” and instead admit and even celebrate our fallibility, the limits of our vision. As Montaigne put it, writing out his mind on paper centuries ago:

Thus I guarantee no certainty, unless it be to make known to what point, at this moment, extends the knowledge that I have of myself. Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.

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