Read More Memoirs!

Here (with help from Cheryl Strayed and Hemingway) is why memoirs help you be happy right now.

As I walked to a café a few months back, I listened to an engaging podcast discussing Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, in which she tells us about her harrowing months-long hike following the death of her mother. I doubt I’ll read it—aren’t all memoirs written for women these days? Do I really want to read about Strayed's honey-drenched sex with a dreamy Wilco fan she met on the trail? But I will hope to catch the Reese Witherspoon movie (and—are you reading this, Sweetie?—not, I emphasize, for the honey-drenched sex scene) because it sounds intense and insightful. The podcasters make Strayed sound like a real writer who does multiple things at once, combining adventure with blunt metaphors about grief. Do male writers do that these days? Would men read them if they did?

[A note: I wrote this before the site was up. I’ve since seen the movie—with the wife! I thought it was awesome. It was a little too tense for her.]

A small number of male writers used to do this, though usually for more polemical purposes. (James Baldwin comes to mind.) One big-name male writer did write for purposes much like today’s female memoirists—though not until his bipolar miseries, alcoholism, chronic pain (from a plane crash) and electroshock therapy made his life sufficiently hellish that he ended up shooting himself a few months later.

Ernest Hemingway hadn’t published for a decade, and his previous book wasn’t a dud. It was the Pulitzer-winning mega-hit The Old Man and the Sea. In the intervening time, all his miseries had mounted and his writing had dwindled. But in 1956, the Ritz Hotel in Paris requested he retrieve two trunks he’d left in their care when he’d departed from Paris in 1928.

Hadley and Ernest Hemingway in Switzerland, 1922. Public domain.If you’ve seen Midnight in Paris (and if you haven’t, what are you doing tonight?) you’ll remember that when Hemingway began his writing career he was living in poverty with his first wife (and evidently his one true love) Hadley Richardson and palling around Paris with a cast of luminaries that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Cole Porter. Retrieving his mementos from that time jogged his memory and he began writing a series of sketches that ultimately were published posthumously under a title suggested by his widow, Mary.

A Moveable Feast echoes Catholic terminology (some feast days, such as Palm Sunday, are “moveable” since their yearly dates aren’t fixed) and references what Hemingway wrote to a friend in a letter he sent in 1950: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” By Hemingway's account, a moveable feast is a period of your life that you take with you, that makes an ongoing contribution even as it recedes.

But Hemingway couldn’t—or didn’t—write a coherent narrative. His story came out in individual essays, some of which are character studies (of Gertrude Stein and Fitzgerald), some of which are score-settlings (with Ford Maddox Ford) and some of which are apologies (his only-later-published “The Pilot Fish and the Rich” describes the awful way he left Hadley for his next wife and how, “When I saw my wife [Hadley] again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her”). I find the essays offer mixed quality and pleasure. But the jewel is the opener, titled posthumously “A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel” (which you can read here).

After your first reading, it’s worth rereading the essay aloud to a willing partner, as the power and sensuousness of the language will hit you more strongly. Here’s the start:

Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside. It was a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together and I kept away from it because of the smell of dirty bodies and the sour smell of drunkenness.

Forgive the blasphemy, but my God.

The starting us right in the middle of the action. The second-person narration in which he’s inviting us to be him. The jolting bluntness (“It was a sad, evilly run café”). The visceral immediacy of the weather. (“I’m gonna cry. It’s Boston in November!” my wife exclaimed as I read to her “the leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus.” We left Boston for L.A. a little over a year ago, and she can still get homesick for even its miserable aspects.)

As you read on, you’ll meet the beautiful muse he notices waiting for her boyfriend one evening as he writes at the (much nicer) café referenced in the title: “I’ve seen you now, beauty, and you belong to me now, whoever you are waiting for and if I never see you again, I thought. You belong to me and all Paris belongs to me and I belong to this notebook and this pencil.” You’ll also note the pencil sharpenings that fill the saucer under his café au lait as he writes, the twigs he hopes will heat their freezing apartment, the rum that is such a consolation and then such an indifference and the smell of the cesspools as they’re pumped out at night.

So why is this finely-observed, brief autobiographical essay (it’s about 1,600 words, the same length as this article) the essay that kicks off what all modern memoirists seek to pull off?

It’s because it remarkably describes what it’s like to inhabit one’s own day.

It has no moral except that immediacy. We feel Hemingway’s life and vitality and possibility and relationship with Hadley in a way that modern memoirists do their best to approximate. This happens in several key ways:

1. It’s remarkably sensuous as it invites us to drink in our own world.

As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.

For Hemingway, life goes best if, as you walk through each day, you learn to drink in the world—its sights and how it feels against your skin and what each taste offers you. This advice is the same as Ecclesiastes’ conclusion that “there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”

2. It invites us into a world of flow.

The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi told us that we all long for a day in which not just our work, but also our lives get caught up in a kind of flow that’s bigger than we are. Here’s a picture of young Hemingway at work:

Then I went back to writing and I entered far into the story and was lost in it. I was writing it now and it was not writing itself and I did not look up nor know anything about the time nor think where I was nor order any more rum St. James.

He gives a vivid picture of what it was like for him as a young writer to get caught up in his work—and the reader begins to realize that he’s describing an experience of being caught up in far more than just work. His writing, Paris, his wife and café life all sweep him into something bigger.

Philosophers and theologians talk about “the eternal now” and the simple-sounding power of living in the moment, which turns out to be extraordinarily hard to pull off. Hemingway describes this here as well as anyone, and it’s something memoirists have been trying to capture ever since.

3. It reminds us that flow can’t last without love.

The essay closes with a small vignette about Hadley that, as Hemingway was so renowned for doing, demonstrates without comment the kind of life and relationship he’s talking about.

Why do we read memoirs? When they hit their mark as Hemingway so profoundly does here and as Cheryl Strayed and others have been trying to do ever since, they give us a view into how one thoughtful person learns to experience their actual life—day by day, full of problems and possibilities—as a feast. Hemingway discovered this just before his own problems buried him. But he’s pointed the way for generations of gifted memoirists since and they’re trying to point the way for you and me.

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