We memoirists like to think our lives are uniquely ours, but often it turns out not to be true–at least not wholly true. I’ve been worrying these past weeks about creating what publishers today call “platform.” I always thought platform was something to stand on, something physical to lift one to a stage from which to speak (I also remember platform—elevator—shoes for the short men of my youth), but today I’m learning platform means something related but radically different: the only physical part being the computer screen, and speaking, digital. I thought I was alone in finding the platform imperative disconcerting, even demoralizing. But a wonderful post by Judith Newton on the Shewrites website about the twists and turns of publishing not only confirmed the reality of my discomfort but showed how she creatively handled the challenge. The usefulness of Newton’s reported experience in the crowded online marketplace is not my point, however.
It turns out that I know Judith Newton, sort of, though we have never met. But both as academics and as feminists for many years, our careers were shaped by the history of our generation—I have one of her books on my shelf. We both directed Women’s Studies Programs, I on the East Coast in the 80s, Judith on the West in the 90s.
When I first read the post―urged upon me by Shewrites founder Kamy Wicoff―I thought Newton’s name sounded familiar, familiar beyond the book on the shelf. I had an odd feeling I couldn’t shake that a man I had known in the 1970s had mentioned her name to me as someone I should meet. I wasn’t completely sure, and I could not remember why I made the connection, so I wrote to Judith and asked her whether this was possible, thinking that this was a kind of weird thing to do. I was amused to learn that we had both dated this same person decades ago before he became gay! That strange coincidence made me want to read her memoir even more. I wanted to see what else we might have shared.
I stayed up all night last night reading Tasting Home, Newton’s memoir, a book that has a lot to do with food, as its name suggests. So does my memoir Breathless. But the similarities stop there. Judith’s experience with cooking―as attested to by the many recipes collected in the book―became a kind of lifeline for her as she came of age, and after. For me cooking―the desire to cook and find meaning in making food―ended with the years in Paris that are the subject of my memoir. My food stuff is all about fiasco meals and culinary humiliations that finally drove me out of the kitchen altogether. I recall them with a comic edge, but in fact trying to cook well made me suffer. The only part of Julia Child I related to was to dropping food on the floor and picking it up while no one was looking.
In the end the boyfriend in common was more of a blip of intimacy than a deciding factor in the shape of a life―in fact he does not appear in Judith’s memoir; nor in mine. Still, would I have read Tasting Home with the same intense curiosity had we not had this shared autobiographical accident? Probably not, but I’m glad I did because while the differences in our lives ultimately outweighed the similarities of age and one-time lover, they also made me see the outline of my story with new clarity. And isn’t that why we are so enamored of memoir? Because the details of other people’s stories bring us back to the distinctive shape of our lives when passed through the scrim of memory and revised by us.
P.S. Less sexy but more important and certainly sweetest: we have shared an editor. Brooke Warner was Judith’s editor at Shewritespress.com: she also acquired and edited my memoir before leaving Seal.