COUNTDOWN: “Is it you?”

This is the third installment of my “countdown to publication” for the members of shewrites.com

A few months ago, I showed the book jacket of my forthcoming memoir to a friend. This was a woman about my age, maybe a bit younger, a person and writer I admire but only know slightly. “You were pretty,” she said, with an air of perplexity. What did this mean, exactly, I wondered? That she found it hard to believe that the woman sitting across from her at a café table had ever looked good? If that was really me, my face had undergone a long decline. She must think I look awful, I decided. “Oh well,” I said, “it was a long time ago,” joining her disbelief in a gesture of wounded politesse.
Maybe putting one’s ingénue face on a memoir cover is a dangerous activity, dangerous to one’s vanity, it seems. But who would want to look at my face now, as I look back over my twenty-something life? Certainly not me. Better to run the risk of retrospective narcissism.
There are three photographs of me from my early days in Paris in the book: the cover, that was a street photo of me walking along the quais of the Seine; my passport picture; and another street photo, of me walking on the Boulevard St-Michel with my roommate. To me the pictures are there in order to document my narrative: yes, I lived there, and to me the girl I looked like then is important to the story. I was an American girl—in some ways generic—but I was also that American girl. A French major, a nice Jewish girl from New York, a girl who wanted above all to be happy, although she did not seem to have much of a talent for happiness, but was ready for any adventure.

envelopeThe photographs document a moment, a moment past that certainly was, but if I only had had my snapshot album, I would not have been able to write the memoir. True, the images dated the change of boyfriend, the change of hairdo and hemline, but something crucial was lacking—but, as it turned out, miraculously available to me, something written: a cache of letters that I had sent home from my first day in Paris to my last. In the beginning, the weekly report was my parents’ particular pound of flesh—write a letter or we won’t send you any money (I was always broke). But after a while, the letter production became a habit. It was easier for me to write than to have them send me telegrams asking what was wrong. It was another era, when parents were unwilling to let girls be free and on their own.
Many, many years later, after my parents died, when I emptied the apartment I found the letters in my mother’s underwear drawer. They were bundled in chronological order, and occasionally, my father had included drafts of his letters (mainly of threats and condemnation). The letters were a gold mine of information—and misinformation. I could still remember what I had lied about. But even the letters were not enough. Yes, they gave me names and dates, but was I really in love with my husband to be, little dreaming I was about to marry a con man? “I’m really, really in love,” I wrote.
It’s hard to measure feelings fifty years later, not to mention recapture them.
And yet that is truly the challenge of memoir: to sort and sift through photographs and whatever documents remain, and try somehow to get back there in memory. It’s not only memory, of course. There’s the task of finding the story line that makes sense of each point of remembrance and holds them together in a coherent pattern, a narrative that feels like the truth. Have I found that?
I’m not sure, but I know that I never stopped asking: Was that me?

Is Twenty-Seven Old?

At some point in the interesting new movie Frances Ha someone declares: “Twenty-seven is old.” In his enthusiastic review film critic A.O. Scott observes: “while that may in some sense be true, it is also true that 27 is not as old as it used to be. A few short generations ago members of the American middle class could be expected to reach that age in possession of a career, a spouse and at least one child, unless they were rock stars, in which case they would be dead.”

I don’t know whether Scott was referring to his generation or his mother’s (his mother’s, since I know his mother, the amazing Joan Scott, would be mine), or further back in time. But it got me thinking. Did I consider myself old at twenty-seven?

nancy27I turned twenty-seven in 1968, when this photograph was taken. I had been back living in New York after spending a good chunk of my twenties in Paris. That’s the story of my new memoir. The haircut, which didn’t last long, was the sign of my continued fascination with Jean Seberg and the movie Breathless, the cultural artifact that presides over my memoir. My curly hair even straightened and cut to an inch of its life refused to cooperate.

In 1968 I had neither a career, a spouse, nor a child; I considered myself lucky to have a new cool boyfriend (who took this picture), a goddaughter―the daughter of my Paris roommate―and, not least, to be starting graduate school at Columbia.

Annabel057My lovely goddaughter Annabel in Nice. My hair back to normal.

Above all, it was 1968, and even if I had managed to miss the student revolts both in Paris and New York, it was clear that something new was happening for young people. But I would also have to say that I did feel old, in part because I was older than my graduate school cohort; in part because I felt that I had drifted through the first half of my twenties and had little to show for it. (OK, I had survived a bad marriage, but still.) I was kind of embarrassed to be twenty-seven and still in school, still getting bailed out financially by my parents from time to time—what Scott refers to as the “quarter-life crisis.”

Despite his references to generations, Scott does not see this movie as primarily about a generation, but rather, and I agree, the story of Frances’s journey to the shot in the final scene that gives the movie its title (to explain that, the sweetest image of the film would definitely be a spoiler), and makes twenty-seven seem more exciting about what is to come than weary from the mishaps leading up to that moment.

Another reviewer calls Frances Ha “the best film that will be made about this generation,” by which he means “people in their late twenties right about now,” but I’m not at all sure that this is a generational movie, even if there are plenty of cultural markers pointing in that direction—Brooklyn, for one, the Brooklyn already memorialized by Girls.  

Maybe the better question would be: what does it feel like to be twenty-seven when you are a girl—a young woman with ambitions not yet fulfilled—in 2013 or 1968? I’m not sure it’s all that different. Moreover, it’s a story we’ve not seen, read, or heard enough about despite the fact that this is 2013 and not 1968.

Now that I have not been twenty-seven for a very long time, I’m absolutely sure that twenty-seven is young.

 

Welcome

I’ve always been attracted to the margins of the main story, anecdotes, sidebars, and especially footnotes. Now that my books appear without footnotes, I miss them. I’ve been looking for a way to recreate them, and I may have found it, here in this online diary.

I thought I’d begin with incidents related to Breathless: An American Girl in Paris to be published by Seal this Fall. The memoir chronicles my life in Paris in the early 1960s when girls were not Lena Dunham’s adorable HBO Girls, but just girls in our twenties, nice girls from good schools with conflicting desires. These nice girls (in my case, Nice Jewish Girl) wanted freedom from convention—usually sexual—and made many bad choices with bad boyfriends along the way.

Besides a few stories, I plan to share some images of the book re-imagined as a graphic memoir—a side project that is close to my heart—as well as photos of some of my Paris haunts from the 60s taken on a recent trip.

And then, I’ll take it from there.

Please join me as I try to find my way through this virtual labyrinth.