How to pronounce "memoir"

Pretend someone stole your rattle and draw out that last syllable in a long "whaa."

Published May 9, 2001 7:01PM (EDT)

After yet another day of nonwriting, I found myself staring at yet another panel discussion on memoirs on Book-TV, courtesy of C-Span2. This particular dialogue was identical to many I had heard recently. Discussion topics included: Is the memoir true? What is truth? How do you rat on your family and still have a successful Thanksgiving dinner? Can an ex-spouse sue you? How can I legally keep my 12-year-old daughter from writing her memoir? Do you know a good lawyer? Should creative nonfiction be renamed "creative nonjournalism"?

OK, I made up the last topic, but in this topsy-turvy literary world who can blame me for blurring fact and fantasy?

The panel discussion was about as riveting as watching cardboard decompose in a slow drizzle. Still, after an hour, one major question remained unanswered: What is the correct way to pronounce "memoir"?

Novice writers who are still stuck in an uneventful first marriage and have not discovered the joys of brie, $15-a-pound Hawaiian coffee and red Italian leather tend to say "mem-moir," which has no cachet, and holds them back from ever inking a lucrative book contract.

Experienced writers -- professors in university creative writing programs, for example -- who can distinguish an exquisite merlot from an inferior merlot, and have publishing connections beyond Boise, Idaho, say "mem-wah," drawing out the second syllable for dramatic effect. (This somewhat European pronunciation should not be confused with "whaa," the whining sound babies make when they lose their rattle or are denied the chance to plunge their hand into an open flame.) When seated on a panel next to writers who say "mem-wah," the "mem-moir" writer appears coarse and undereducated, a mere impostor who will be relegated to a lifetime of publishing haiku in Saskatchewan journals or editing software manuals. Avoid this pronunciation in mixed company unless you want to suffer the above consequences.

But how do you know when to make the switch to "mem-wah"? Do you have to wait for that first divorce or that initial restraining order? Can you use the more impressive pronunciation while still drinking boxed wine and digesting processed American cheese? Can you still be on good terms with your parents?

I realize these are complicated questions without easy answers. Still, some basic adjustments must be made before jumping to "mem-wah." First, you must realize that you did not have a happy childhood. No one did. It is impossible to be well-adjusted, at any age.

Those endless, idyllic summers of swimming and baseball at your grandparents' Iowa country home were actually scarring hours of horrific dysfunction. When you caught garter snakes in the meadow, you may have thought you were discovering nature's beauty. Wrong. The snakes symbolized a future boyfriend who would take advantage of your innocence by trying to insert his slimy tongue into your unwilling mouth. (You've never been able to kiss properly since that awful night.) And when that same snake escaped into the tall grass, wasn't that actually your father running off to earn a living but ignoring your emotional needs? Perhaps you should have decapitated that snake when you had the chance.

Your "kind" Midwestern grandparents were, in fact, repressed sadists. Think back carefully and creatively on those times. Weren't the apple pies and grilled cheese sandwiches just a bit too hot? Didn't they burn the roof of your mouth? Wasn't your grandfather smiling on those occasions, almost as if he were taking pleasure in your misery? And why so much candy and kindness? Why me? you ask the universe. Why?!

Heck, if you really concentrate on those times, you will find in them a veritable wellspring of anger and pain. You've wasted whole decades of your life lying about your past. Now, you know the truth. What luck! With a few well-placed adjectives and a strong narrative, the truth resembles a pretty good novel. There is only one way to purge your pain: Prepare a 50-page book proposal that tells the sordid truth about your evil grandparents, who now reside in an assisted-living facility in South Florida.

In your proposal, use the snake metaphor and easy access to sweets to foreshadow your subsequent failed relationships, impossible dental bills, ruined pasta dinners, herpes and weight gain. Insert some juicy sexual tidbits that involve a rival sibling or an older neighbor. Sprinkle thoroughly with poignant conversations you remember verbatim from preschool. Thinly disguise your family's names. Hire the best libel attorney in New York. Send to an agent immediately.

Once your book is finally published (expect to wait at least 18 months) and you have kicked off your six-week reading tour, then you will have earned the right to take your place at the lectern during next year's conference devoted to "Writing Your Life Story Through Selective Memory of Place and Estranged Family Members." Adjust the microphone so your thoughts can be heard in the back row; sip a long draught from the graphically pleasing bottle of spring water (you have now arrived: free water!); take a deep breath while focusing on your damaged inner child; try to smile through the universal trauma that is our unfortunate lot here in modern America; and, with your fellow writers at your side, begin to share.

"My mem-wah describes an emotional journey that began when I was a child in Iowa. Snakes play a major role in my mem-wah. My mem-wah ... My ... Whaa ... Whaa ... Whaa ..."

By Stephen J. Lyons

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of "Landscape of the Heart," a memoir of single fatherhood. He lives in Washington state.This week he received a rejection letter that described his writing as "unfocused and full of broken glass." It actually made him feel good.

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