Have you heard the expression “There is no there there”? Do you understand the meaning?
In 1937, American author Gertrude Stein published the book Everybody's Autobiography. In Chapter 4, Stein recounts returning to her home town of Oakland, California, while on a lecture tour in 1935. The city had grown and changed enormously since her childhood there. When she tried to find her childhood home, she learned that it had been demolished and new structures had been built on the land. She called the realization “painful nostalgia.”
Here is the full quote:
… I kept searching for the next new city where I would truly find myself, where I would be content in my own skin. But, of course, I eventually realized that, no matter where I went, there was no “there” there.
Today, according to Urban Dictionary, the expression “There is no there there” means “an utter lack of substance or veracity as it pertains to the subject under discussion.” The website yourdictionary.com defines it as, “The indicated thing, person, or other matter has no distinctive identity, no significant characteristics, or no functional center point.”
Does your memoir have a there?
I did a little Googling about the expression “there is no there there” because I keep hearing it in conversation and I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it means. After reading numerous definitions, such as the two provided, it struck me that this expression could be used to describe a challenge faced by many novice memoir writers: their memoir manuscript does not have a clear and obvious there. As a memoir writing coach, sussing out the central, core point of a memoir is the most crucial and yet the most difficult aspect of memoir writing.
This is another way of saying, a memoir must have a clear theme (point or argument) that every scene, every story told, must support. In her latest book, Blueprint for a Memoir, author Jennie Nash breaks down the essential way a memoir should be constructed. Her approach consists of Scene, Point, Impact. According to Nash, the Impact (in which you make it clear why the reader should care about the scene and how it connects to the larger theme) is missing in memoirs that don’t work. Without it being crystal clear why you have included a story in your memoir, why the story is essential to the overarching argument you are making, you have failed to provide meaning-making for the reader. If readers ask themselves, “Why are you telling me this?” and you don’t provide an answer, your memoir loses its power and appeal.
Can you find the there of your memoir?
Think about Gertrude Stein going in search of her childhood home, longing for the joy the sight would bring her, only to find the house gone and all trace of it extinguished. Such a disappointment. Such painful nostalgia. She was left feeling anchorless, adrift. As you craft your memoir, keep Stein’s story in mind. In your memoir, will you bring the readers to the place you want to show them? Or will there be no there there?
Prolific writer Gertrude Stein wrote Everyone’s Autobiography as a continuation of the memoir The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in 1933. In addition to her now-famous quote, “There is no there there,” Stein wrote another oft-quoted line, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” in the1913 poem “Sacred Emily.”
Jennie Nash’s book Blueprint for a Memoir: How to Write a Memoir for the Marketplace was published in 2023 by Tree Farm Books, Santa Barbara, California. She is the author of twelve books in three genres.