Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
Suzanne Guillette’s Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment is told through the embarrassing stories of her friends and acquaintances. She wrote the book during a time of heated transition in her life: just out of grad school, she was putting a couple of heavy-hitting relationships to rest. Though Much to Your Chagrin began as a hunt for embarrassing anecdotes on the streets of New York, it became as much about Guillette’s own humiliations—and tragedies—and her quest to overcome them.
This week, she answered a few of our questions about collecting stories from strangers, the gray area between fiction and memoir, and our varied responses to tragic events. She’s currently on tour—in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts—so be sure to check out her website for upcoming appearances.
You asked for peoples’ most guarded moments. Has that ever made you feel dirty?
I’m not sure what you mean by dirty, but I’d have to say no, the act of asking people to tell me their most embarrassing stories didn’t make me feel dirty. I respected people’s personal boundaries around answering the question of, “Do you have an embarrassing story you’d like to share?” After all, the spirit of the project was always intended to be cathartic, not invasive.
In the preface, you say that you’ve changed people’s names, defining features, and “in rare cases, even events.” If you can tell us without giving too much away, which events did you change, and how?
I’d prefer not to reveal how I did this, though I did I give each and every change, including the two rare cases of altered events, lengthy consideration. My main goals in such alterations were to conceal identities and protect others’ privacy. Ultimately, it was important to make these changes, so that I could write freely about that particular period of my life; as I mention in the preface, Chagrin is an effort to recreate my emotional consciousness at that time.
There’s a fine line between memoir and autobiographical fiction. Do you think you cross it by changing these things?
I gave this a lot of thought, too. I decided on the memoir categorization because despite the decisions I made to alter certain details—the majority of which were minor—at the end of the day, this is the true story of what I faced that year. Chagrin is more about my relationship to the events that transpired that year than the events themselves. Since a main theme of the book is ownership and taking responsibility, I also felt it was important to stand by my story and my admissions of depression, heartbreak, and a whole host of other things of which I was once ashamed. To call it a “novel” would miss this point.
Also, forgive me this long-winded answer, but since you are “Memoirville,” it seems like this might be an appropriate place to cite a passage from writing goddesses Patricia Hampl. With regard to defining memoir, she writes,
Memoir is not what happened (if we’re lucky, that’s the best journalism). It is what has happened over time, in the mind, in the life as it attends to these tantalizing, dismaying, broken bits of life history. Such personal writing is, as the essay is, ‘an attempt.’ It is a try at the truth. The truth of a self in the world.
Much of your book revolves around how you deal with grief, like breaking up with your long-time fiancé Ted (if that is his real name). What do you think reveals more about a person’s true psyche: how they deal with embarrassment, or how they deal with tragedy?
Wow, great question. I’d say it’s how one deals with tragedy. I think embarrassment is largely a superficial phenomenon, because it deals with our concern over how others perceive us, how we appear to others, etc—so how one responds to an embarrassing moment doesn’t necessarily go so deep. Dealing with shame, which does not necessitate the presence of others, is far more personal and interior an experience. (I would argue that shame actually has a larger role in Chagrin than embarrassment.) Responding to tragedy is quite personal, too. In the example you mention with Ted (which is, yes, his real name) I struggled quite a bit when it came time to face my own grief and feelings of loss—struggles that resulted in actions and responses far more revealing than what one does in the face of silly gaffes, like falling down in front of a crowd of people or spilling water when one is trying to make a good impression.
The book was originally supposed to a project you were calling “Oh, Shit!,” right? Why did you shift your focus to your personal experiences?
Yes. The surface situation in Chagrin is about the writing of Oh, Shit!, which I was viewing as a light novelty book of other people’s embarrassing moments. The problem with Oh, Shit! was that I’d never actually found the subject of embarrassment particularly interesting. It was a project I undertook as a way to bide my time until I figured out what I “really” wanted to write—which was a frustrating place to be. While I love people and truly enjoyed hearing about people’s lives, when it came time for me to write the stories up, the writing wasn’t satisfying. In fact, it was pretty bad. I think this is because I could never really understand what was underneath these stories, the deeper truths—embarrassment and shame are very subjective phenomena. On a theoretical level, I thought the only way to get at the “truth” was to view shame and embarrassment through the lens of personal experience.
But, on far less intellectual level, I’d completely fallen apart that year. Nearly twelve months after I’d begun collecting Oh, Shit! stories, I’d become a shadow of my former self, in more ways than one. So I wrote the book to figure out, as I’ve come to articulate my objective, “What the hell happened?”
Also, when I started out, I felt self-conscious to be writing a memoir at the age of thirty. Who was I to say that this moment in time was at all important or worth-telling? (This is one of the reasons I settled on the second person, because it made me cringe less.) But, since I felt compelled use my interior life as material, I decided to just go for it, trying to be as true to those experiences and feelings as possible. And in the end, I’m glad I didn’t let my own judgments and doubts get in the way of the creative process.
When you collected “Oh, shit!” moments from unsuspecting New Yorkers, did you end up with any new friends? Enemies?
Enemies? Not that I know of! But, I’m happy to report that, yes, I did make a handful of friends (or friendly acquaintances), including people I asked in the following locations: 1) an elevator in Midtown; 2) a bus stop in Windsor Terrace; and 3) a street corner on the Lower East Side. When I was getting ready to announce the book launch, I went back and found the many cards and email addresses I’d collected, to write everyone and let folks know that the making of Oh, Shit! was about to be published. That was a fun email to write.
What’s one of the more embarrassing stories you heard out on the streets?
Oh, dear. You think I’d be better at answering this question by now. Part of the problem is that people who seemed incredibly embarrassed didn’t necessarily have the most shocking stories, and vice versa. That said, one young woman I spoke with told me about the time she pooped her white pants as she got off of the subway, on 14th Street. At a complete loss, she walked sideways, with her backside pressed against storefronts, until she could figure how to get home. Putting myself in her shoes, I imagined that to be a pretty mortifying moment. But she had the best attitude, saying that these stories “just prove that we’re all survivors.” I very much admire her perspective.
You obviously enjoy collecting other peoples’ embarrassing stories. Are there any books out there—fiction, memoir, or otherwise—that you enjoy for that reason? Also, what are you reading right now?
Well, I wouldn’t exactly say that I enjoy collecting other people’s embarrassing stories. During the year that the book covers, as much as I loved talking to strangers, I struggled with this. But, I have always appreciated the opportunity to connect with people in a meaningful way, whether over an embarrassing story or an intimate, real-life tale that has value for the person who is telling it.
Along the lines of yarn-spinning, one book I love for its storytelling genius is All Souls by Michael McDonald—it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje is magical, filled with luminous snapshots of family lore. I also read and re-read Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell—his character portrayals make me nostalgic for a New York I never knew.
Right now, I’ve just returned to Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, which I had put down for inexplicable reasons this fall. Inexplicable because her writing is amazing, truly amazing. Her novels are gritty and lyrical, often dealing with the psyches of women-in-crisis. I’m always looking for reading suggestions, if you have any good ones.
Finally, what’s your six-word memoir?
Love and curiosity, greater than fear.
READ an excerpt from Much to Your Chagrin
BUY a copy of the book
VISIT Suzanne Guillette’s website for her bio, upcoming tour dates, and more