Vanity vs. Self-Reflection in Memoir

Happy EndingRachel Lyon checked out the How I Learned storytelling series at the Happy Ending Lounge in Chinatown and muses on the problem of vanity vs. self-knowledge in memoir.

I was running on five hours’ sleep, two tacos, and a frayed personal life when I found the Happy Ending Lounge. The venue was dark, candlelit, and narrow. By the front door was a low table stacked with postcards and brochures. From the front flap of one pamphlet advertising “happy ending” massages, a nude woman (Caucasian) gazed over her shoulder with come-hither eyes—a gentrifier’s homage to the Xie He Health Center’s past life as an erotic massage parlor. Reflective black walls doubled the crowd, which was young and cool and outnumbered the scarce knee-high leather ottomans. I bought myself a twelve-dollar cocktail and took to the back of the room, behind a growing clot of people standing in the doorway.

The founder of the How I Learned series, Blaise Allysen Kearsley is a charming host, with an irrepressible, humming little laugh that seems to be a compromise she’s made with some wicked guffaw within. The theme of the evening was “How I Learned Little Things are Big.” To illustrate the concept, Kearsley had brought along excerpts from the diary she kept when she was twelve years old, when short periods of time pass unbearably slowly and passing crushes seem to have a direct effect on mortality. With her romper, tight bun, and oversized glasses, the adult Kearsley could nearly have passed for twelve, which made it all the more surreal to hear her read the angsty, struggling words she herself wrote years before. Her tone was the kind of amused affection you’d reserve for an outspoken, misguided younger cousin. Her process of becoming a teenager was evident on the page. “This stinks,” she read. “No, it sucks. No: It sucks shit.” To listen was to share a private laugh with a good friend at someone else’s expense.

The best emcees are extroverts, and shameless. The best autobiographic storytellers, though, possess a degree of self-knowledge that allows the listener a sense of intimacy with their process, forgiveness of their hang-ups, and solidarity with their mission. For a handful of the night’s readers, it was clearly a challenge to get up in front of a roomful of strangers and tell the story they wanted to tell. The eloquent, jittery writer/storyteller Kate Greathead was the highlight of the night with a morality tale about OKCupid, second chances, and prejudice. The story wouldn’t have packed such a punch had she not described her own neuroses with such dry, tolerant shrewdness. However, other How-I-Learned storytellers failed where Greathead succeeded, substituting self-knowledge for self-absorption.

If Kearsley’s first excerpt was rather tasty in its dramatic irony, the second—and third, and fourth, and fifth—wore thin. We were treated to detailed descriptions of outfits, to the equivalent dramas of twenty-minute car rides and five-hour phone calls. If you’ve ever known a sociable twelve-year-old, you know how tedious are the he-said-she-saids that make up her life, how embarrassing her young, unsubtle vanities. After a few rounds, twelve-year-old Kearsley’s gossip and self-absorption were made less dull only by the fact that they were read aloud by Kearsley-at-forty.

Therein lies the kind of casual vanity that gets in the way of self-reflection—autobiographical storytelling’s most essential ingredient. As our emcee (with what was admittedly a pretty good shtick), Kearsley can be forgiven for this. She was not telling a story, after all; she was implying one, through aural collage. Far more importantly, with the How I Learned series Kearsley has created a space for other, excellent storytellers to come speak, reflect, entertain, and inspire. The series features a different batch of storytellers every month; curiosity will doubtless impel me to another one sometime.

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