Arts & Culture

The Shelf-Life of a Memoir

About six years ago I began writing my memoir. That I was relatively young – only twenty years old – and wasn’t famous did not seem important. I didn’t even know that I was writing a book until about two … Read More

By / December 5, 2008

About six years ago I began writing my memoir. That I was relatively young – only twenty years old – and wasn’t famous did not seem important. I didn’t even know that I was writing a book until about two years later when I was looking at twenty candid essays chronicling a troubled past and my relationship with my high-society grandmother. I gave my project a title. I called it the Upper East Side Syndrome. I told friends about it, parading bound versions of drafts like a newborn at a bris. When people asked if I wanted to go to some party or club where people were having fun, I usually bowed out gracefully claiming that my book needed more work.

The first setback was that I couldn’t stop writing. I’d be sitting at my laptop hacking away and then I’d remember another funny anecdote that just had to be made into a story. The number of essays grew and I mined my memory for more. I read everything I could about the craft of memoir. I set deadlines that I did not meet. The end grew farther and farther away.

Even when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about writing. A year before I found an agent I tried to quit writing. I was full of confidence in my writing in college, but when I tried submitting essays from my book, they were rejected. Some rejections had encouraging notes from editors; most did not. I doubted myself and decided to concentrate on other things, like my job or a relationship. I put the latest draft of the book in a drawer and left it there for nine months. Still I could not stop seeing my life in print. I would go to work and something funny would happen, and I’d think "that’s a story."

But later that year I got a phone message from an editor asking for permission to print a story I had submitted. The message was full of static, and I could not make out the magazine title the first time I listened. I did hear his name was Dan Lynch from a magazine that had New York in the title, which meant only one thing to me: The New Yorker. Flushed with excitement, I dropped the phone and high-fived the air in elation before remembering I didn’t submit anything to The New Yorker. I picked the phone back up and concentrated on Mr. Lynch’s voice. As it happens it was not The New Yorker calling. It was a small magazine called New York Stories, which I had in fact submitted something to. Still, this was big news. I was finally going to be a published author! That single publication was all it took to renew my interest in writing.

I dug out my defunct manuscript and reread it with a red pen. It was not a pretty sight and I decided to rewrite the whole thing. Six more months went by writing and rewriting. People who knew I’d been writing wanted to know when the book was going to be published, and I did not have an answer for them. I couldn’t even decide whether I was writing a memoir or a novel. Everything was true, but what would happen when my estranged family heard I was writing a book?

I took a step back from the laptop again and reevaluated my intentions. If I wanted to write a memoir, displaying my dysfunctional family for the entire world, then I needed to understand why. Sure I wanted to be published, but I didn’t know that writing nonfiction was any more likely to get me published than writing fiction. Besides, there had to be some good reason why I had been writing true stories from my past all along. I just needed to figure out what it was. So I decided to fly back home to New York from where I’d been living in Florida for an investigative trip.

Because New York is home to me, I viewed it with a mixture of longing and apprehension. Longing because it’s home, the site of my happiest childhood memories -and it was a very happy childhood – and apprehension because due to the unraveling of my family in my adult life I can’t return home. That was what I was writing about. So this particular trip wasn’t a fun-filled time of dinners and reunions. It was me trying to figure out how things went so wrong and how I would write about it. I ended up wandering the city where I once lived and replaying my childhood. Here’s FAO Schwarz where I was almost arrested for shoplifting the Barbies I couldn’t bring myself to ask for. Here’s Central Park where I roamed endlessly and where I once learned that my entire life had been a carefully orchestrated lie.

Most of my book takes place in one of the prestigious apartment building’s on the Upper East Side’s Museum Mile – that glorious stretch of Fifth Avenue from 82nd Street to 105th - but I hadn’t been home since my mother threw me out of the house when I was eighteen. Our apartment building sits across from the Met and I sat down on the steps outside the museum. I could see the same doorman I knew when I lived there, and I wondered if he’d remember me. I am on a list of names not to admit inside.

I looked up at what I thought was my old room’s window and saw a figure looking out at Central Park. Who would be in my room now? Did they see me? It was then, sitting on the outside and trying to look in, that I realized why I started writing my memoir to begin with, and why it had to stay a memoir. It wasn’t because I was mad, or greedy enough to write one of those tell-all books. I wrote because I was confused, and I thought that through writing I could finally get some answers to my questions. I was trying to write my way to closure, trying to find my way back home.

I got up and crossed Fifth Avenue, half-expecting someone to come out of my old building and tell me to leave. When they did not, I took out my camera and snapped a picture of the building’s awning. I took a picture of the American flag outside the building. I walked back across the street and got a picture of my old room’s window. I was like the paparazzi of my own past. I must have been taking pictures for an hour before the camera’s battery gave out, and I felt a gust of summer wind. It was time to move on, to go back home and finish the book.

Matt Rothschild, author of Dumbfounded, spent the past week guest blogging on Jewcy. This is his parting post.