Much to Your Chagrin: You’re Responsible for Your Own Story

After writing a semi-polite blog semi-accusing CNN of semi-destroying my sense of well-being, I ended the day by cutting loose and announcing to an elevator full of strangers in my office building that I wanted “punch Kiran Chetry in the face.” I was in a state of total irritation because I was trying to get to yoga and suspected that class at my now wildly-overcrowded gym was going to be full. (My favorite thing about New York is that you can cry on the street and no one will care, but my second favorite thing is that the stress that stems from getting to, or getting into, a yoga class would make even the Dalai Lama feel murderous.)

As it turned out, the yoga class was full. The Union Square Crunch denied me the little wristband now required to get into any class (ever since the 13th st. location closed due to the “recession.”) Thankfully (for Kiran Chetny’s face), my teacher let me into class anyway and I settled in for another 90 minute session of “now-that-I’ve-taken-an-immersion-I-know-I-stink-at-Yoga.” Except that the lesson of the day turned out to be: tell a different story. My teacher Vanessa described how she’d been to a show in Williamsburg that gave artists the chance to talk about money. Each one of them complained bitterly about how they would never have money and hated everyone who did. At the end of the show, when the collection hat got passed around, nobody donated.

“It is all in the story you tell about your life,” Vanessa explained. “I guarantee you, if they hadn’t been complaining bitterly, people would have put money in that hat.” It reminded me of a piece I’d read in Publisher’s Weekly yesterday by author/memoirist Suzanne Guillette. She describes what it’s like to be be coming out with your first book during the best economic crisis since sliced bread. (Or the 1930s…)

Guillette, in that article, and in her book, Much to Your Chargin: A Memoir of Embarrsment, has mastered of the art of telling your own story in a way that can redeem even the most epic disaster, or minor humiliation. In fact, what intrigued me most about this book was that it provokes investigation of the nuances that separate genuine shame and basic embarrassment. How can we turn something we’re inclined to hide into a story of entertainment and redemption?

Shame is what lurks between the lines of “Chagrin” and ultimately the silent but omnipotent wind that guides the narrative arc. Guillette began her project as a collection of other people’s embarrassing stories, only to find that the truly embarrassing story she was avoiding was her own. Au revoir, collection, Voila memoir!

But it is the moment when Guillette ponders the difference between shame and embarrassment when her ship alters its course. Arguably, she has plenty of reasons to feel ashamed. Her job is going nowhere. She is botching her book project and slept with her agent. She is fighting a cigarette addiction, loss of appetite, mild self-destruction–and steely fending off the friends and family who are trying to help her. But the reason that this is a memoir, and not just another instance of chick lit, is because Guillette does not get weepy on us. She just tells the story like it is, and in doing so, writes a book that embodies the zeitgeist of our time and the changing face of media consumption.

We’re in a world where yes, CNN can make us feel a certain way, and I hear quite frequently that the “media invented the recession.” But because media is changing, the stories of individuals are gaining steam. Not only does “Chagrin” offer an example of how to tell yourself a story that affirms, rather than destroys what you value, but it is the kind of memoir we are going to see more of as society becomes more fractured and less hierarchical: one that tells the story of everyman. (Or woman.) Guillette’s book is more than just the story of one woman’s success over personal strife, it is a fingerprint of a moment in time and a mirror into which readers, men and women alike, can peer to see reflections of their own lives.

One might say: Immediacy is the new austerity. Barack Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe just got a book deal, and in all likelihood, the people who publishers expect to buy the book have been receiving 3 emails a day from Plouffe since the nomination in June. In our world, the small and specific are transcending into the realm of thematically epic. As the economy continues to crumble, a book depicting the plight of our neighbor may sell more copies than one about a war that happened in the previous millennium. “Much To Your Chagrin” may not just have marked a turning point for its author, but also the industry at large.

Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment by Suzanne Guillette comes out on March 10, 2009 Atria Press

And for those of you who (generously) are interested in my yoga journey: Banishing my “I’m the Worst Yogi in the Class mantra” in favor of a “Let’s Play” attitude, I fell out of many an easy pose, but had a great time. Curious and concentrated, I was able to do a flying crow, out of nowhere. Vanessa had me demo and explained to the class, “The point of this is not to say, ‘oh my god, I’ll never be able to do what RB can’s just to see what it looks like, and give it try.” Personally, I’m always saying, “Oh my god, I’ll never be able to do what ___ can do,” but suddenly, it was my own name filling in the blank. A true example of how much can shift when you shift your angle.


2 thoughts on “Much to Your Chagrin: You’re Responsible for Your Own Story

  1. Excellent review, making me definitely want to read that book. Now, I cannot say this strongly enough: I am SO impressed that you not only got into this pose, but did so well enough to be the example for the class. I’m not sure my arms would allow me to do that, but ya never know. Did I say I’m impressed?!


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