Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Not-So Deep Thoughts on the Evolution of Memoirs & Dan Harmon's New Book...


When did we all become so fascinated with other people's lives?

Didn't it used to be that the only biographies found on shelves were of famous people? I mean, really, really famous people like Presidents and pop culture icons. And even then, they were more often biographies, not autobiographies, as if these untouchable people the public had placed on pedestals didn't want to seem crass or common enough to write with the ego needed to write about themselves. They were too special, so they had others tell their life stories. And those stories were always polished and made as nice as possible for the public to consume. In a way, they often became their own kind of fiction.

Maybe people used to write their life story, change the names, and slap "A Novel" after the title so it would end up in the fiction section, assuming no one cared to read about little old them. Maybe there weren't actually fewer biographies back in the day, but I just noticed less because my own interests were different.

But time went on and the definition of celebrity loosened. A lot. Now you can find an ode to Lucille Ball in the same section as a collection of books from the Real Housewives and their ghostwriters. Now you can look up "memoir" on Amazon.com and find satirical essays and first-person accounts of ordinary tales. People in the more recent past have taken things that should have been in the fiction section and stamped "A Memoir" after the title to capitalize on the trendy interest of peering into others' personal lives.  

Growing up in suburbia; growing up bipolar; growing up with a single mom, biracial parents, no parents, no religion, TV as your parent and religion. I wrote one of these, too. It's hardly a best-seller, but the fact that I have been able to sell any at all is a testament to how fascinating a stranger's life can be.

But with this craze, if we can call it that, considering most popular trends regarding media are cyclical, has been born a sense of honesty and rawness to the writing of such personal accounts. Biographies-- even autobiographies-- of the past always felt more formal, more academic. They listed facts, normally in chronological order, and accounted for important events in an important figure's life. But memoirs are different because their meat is not "what happened" but "how I felt about what happened and therefore how it changed me." They are the product of a much more self-aware society-- or at least one that is trying to be so. I'd argue they are also the product of a generation saying 'Stop putting insane pressure on me to be so perfect I am worthy of a biography and just love me-- or at least learn from me-- for who I am, flaws and all.'

Is it the fishbowl experiment? Is it the idea that you can feel better about your own life by reading about others' failures and missteps? Is it something less cynical than that, to feel connected to others, even strangers, by reading about the similarities they share with you? Or is it to read about a worldview and experience the opposite of your own in order to expand and actually learn? Is the grass always greener, or do you just want to appreciate yourself a little more? Is it just to make a connection at all, with something you know to be real?

I'm actually asking you guys this time. Not what you think it is for others, but what it is for you.

I'm asking because I'm reading Dan Harmon's "You'll Be Perfect When You're Dead," which is a collection of his blog posts, which is essentially a published version of his diary. They're his thoughts, his experiences, his relationships ripped open and shared with the world. I don't know if by old-timey standards he would have been a prime candidate for his story to be released as a biography. As it is, I get a lot of blank stares when I tell non-industry or non-LA friends about writers and producers I meet and interview, but actors, everybody knows. It's unfortunate, but it's been the way things have worked for decades. "The faces" get the fame; the ones with the hardest talent often get relegated to the background. Harmon is the perfect example of why such rigid formulas and rules don't work and why we should all be thankful there is a market for blogs and these kinds of books. 

You can't contain creativity in a box, and you can't force the truly unique to conform. So many of the things Harmon shares in his book, on his blog, are not popular opinions the mainstream want to hear out-loud. They might prefer such thought processes didn't exist, and they might be content to trick themselves into thinking they actually don't. But for the rest of us? It's such a huge f***ing relief to realize we're not floating out there alone in a sea of complex ideas and ways of identifying (one's self and one's problems). 

Harmon mentions early enough in the book that writing so publicly helps him (he probably wouldn't call it a form of therapy, but I would), but it's bound to help other people, too. Even if you've never had something you created go on without you. Even if you never created a show at all. If you've loved, lost, laughed, felt different or not good enough-- or too good-- you will connect with his works and his words. It's self-help in the way that you read one man's experiences and can't help but project yourself onto them. How you feel about what he's saying, what you would have done in his position, etc. When the personal is deep enough, it becomes universal.

And isn't that the reaction for which any true writer-- any true artist-- strives?

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