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January 10, 2013

Slate: How to write a memoir

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

All week, I've found myself doing everything I can to distance myself in the crew's eyes from the bovine herd I'm part of, to somehow unimplicate myself: I eschew cameras and sunglasses and pastel Caribbean wear. . . . But of course all of this ostensibly unimplicating behavior on my part is itself motivated by a self-conscious and somewhat condescending concern about how I appear to others that is (this concern) 100% upscale American. Part of the overall despair of this luxury cruise is that no matter what I do I can not escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. . . . I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance conscious, ashamed, despairing and greedy: the world's only known species of bovine carnivore.

2. Personal writing should seem honest. The reader likes personal writing to feel "honest." (This does not mean that the memoir is "honest" — who knows how the writer really felt about something that happened 20 years ago, or yesterday. It just needs to feel honest.) The reader is as adept as Holden Caulfield in detecting phoniness, fakeness, posturing and is as allergic to them. If the reader senses the writer is lying even to himself, or using the essay as a piece of propaganda, a forwarding of his own personal mythology in too clumsy or transparent a way, she will react against it.

3. Personal writing should entertain the reader. (And by this I do not mean the voyeuristic train wreck entertainment that one gets from reading, say, Naomi Wolf's account of losing the Technicolor "Wizard of Oz"-like effects of her orgasms. It should be deliberately entertaining, not accidentally funny.) Most readers don't care about the writer and are distracted instead by small things like their own lives, and so it is incumbent upon the writer to make them care or draw them in by being fascinating or funny or unusually observant.

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