Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

The Memory in the Memoir

Memoir is one of the big ticket items in our literary zeitgeist. Memoir appears everywhere on the bookshelves and on the homepages of Barnes and Noble and Amazon. From the French mémoire, the memoir is a form that has in some ways surpassed the novel and is the most prominent form of nonfiction in contemporary literature. Writers, musicians, artists, politicians, and public officials have all jumped on the bandwagon. The appeal of memoir is simple–we assume that “this really happened.” The person writing actually experienced what we are reading. We’re consuming some form of truth, a primary source document by someone who really lived it. For example, Memoirs of a Geisha by Aruthur Golden and Geisha, A Life by Mineko Iwasaki both deal with the life of a Kyoto geiko. But while Golden is a white man writing a fictional account, Iwasaki was the most renowned and famous geiko of her time. In fact, she sets the record straight about some of the misconceptions sown by Memoirs, such as the fact that high class geiko are essentially courtesans who sell their virginity for the highest bidder and that they are essentially the Japanese equivalent of escorts. (In truth, there is no true “Western” equivalent of the geiko; it simply does not neatly translate into our standard of company for hire). The appeal of Iwasaki’s account over Golden’s is clear; she lived the life of a geiko in Gion. We can believe her more than we can Golden. Her memoirs are true memoirs, rather than Golden’s fabricated account. A memoir of a Holocaust survivor can be trusted more than Holocaust fiction.

Yet the validity of memoir has come under some scrutiny, particularly after the Million Little Pieces scandal on Oprah. Although James Frey’s book was marketed as memoir, much of his account is fictionalized, although loosely based on truth. The appeal of this traumatic account being factional was just too tempting for marketing purposes; it’s more entertaining as memory than it is as made-up. Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors came under similar fire when his own family members questioned the truth of his accounts, and one can assume that Burrough’s took large liberties when recounting his family history.

This literary license leads one into the skepticism a reader must either put on hold or caution when reading the memoir. Because our memories are not video recorders, accurately transcribing and recording our past, many memoirists edit, delete, or alter the account either because their memories are truly faulty, they can’t fully remember, or the edited version better suits the storyline and artistic style of the piece. Creative nonfiction is allowed a little bit of latitude with “fact” when it comes to the memoir. Our memories are far from perfect, and sometimes the “truth” needs tweaking to better serve the genre. Yet one must draw the line with how much a writer can change the past; the account must be based on reality, with additions and deletions minimal and based on need rather than sensationalism. It’s a fine, fine line, one which personal essayists and memoirists struggle with daily.

Additional backlash comes from critics who accuse the memoir as little more than the published equivalent of a psychotherapy session, the thought being if you drank, drugged, or sexed as a way to deal with inner pain and external turmoil, go ahead and share with the world. Why not? Skeptical readers assert that the memoir is indulgent and guilty of navel-gazing. The question arises, “Why should we care if this happened to you? Quit it with the confessional whining and self-serving recounting of your past.” But in truth the memoir is more than self-absorbed rambling. The memoir, when well-written, provides an account of an aspect of the writer’s life, a way for readers to live vicariously through an experience or theme of a person’s life and perhaps reflect on their own. The memoir taps into the human story, the human experience, which, in my opinion, is what true art strives to do. Art tries to tap into the One Story of humanity, what it is to be human, to be cliche–the human condition.

At this point I should make a clear distinction between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography, while also a reflection of a person’s life, is usually a linear account starting from the beginning and moving toward some presupposed end to the present. The writer is attempting to accurately and truly represent the passage of their life, from childhood through adulthood in the ownward march toward death. Autobiographers are often older, able to go through decades of life (presumably full and hopefully well-lived). Autobiographers take little artistic license and are concerned with the retelling of the life story. A memoir, on the other hand, usually focuses on one time period or one aspect of the writer’s life, usually coming-of-age, a relationship with a parent or the family, a traumatic event, or a lesson learned. The memoir is often about self-realization or self-actualization, the process through which the writer lived to reflect and reconsider their past through an artistic lens. The writer is using a dual mode of narrative and reflection to weave an overall picture of an aspect of their life. For example, in Loose Girl, A Memoir of Promiscuity, Kerry Cohen Koffman recounts her parents’ divorce, troubled youth, and subsequent “loose behavior” and how she learned to overcome her low self-esteem and develop a healthy sex life. Alex Lemon’s Happy recounts his years of alcohol and drug abuse as he coped with his strokes and brain surgery, how he recovered and dealt with his lost identity as a star baseball player.

The memoir is a difficult form, and one struggles to come across a well-written memoir in the wealth and breadth of memoir available today. Writers struggle to avoid the trap of “And then…and then…and then…” Rather than merely recounting a story, the memoirist must endeavor to interweave the past with the present person. We must know who the person was when it happened to them, otherwise why should we care? Why should we be invested in what happens to this person? The memoirist must create themselves in a new image, into a character and avoid the urge to provide all the backstory, the impulse of “They won’t understand if I don’t give all the background information.” The memoirist must trust reader just enough to assume they’ll put the pieces together but not too much that the reader becomes lost and confused.

Much of this post is coming from The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts, who supplies the different subgenres of memoir, good examples of each, the challenges of memoir, etc. But I want to stop recounting his point and offer my own criticism of the memoir. Rather than disliking the memoir for its self-indulgence, I think the memoir has become too popularized, too dominant on the nonfiction shelves. Anyone can write a memoir and sell it if famous enough (Bristol Palin, anyone?) The art and craft of the form becomes secondary to the personality of the writer (who usually works with a ghost writer). My issue comes from not the idea that memoir is essentially narcissistic and an exploitation of our culture’s fascination with dysfunction and self-help. I’m not of the opinion that the memoir belongs in the closet instead of on the bookshelf. The well-written memoir is an experiment of introspection and self-knowledge, the combination of experience in the moment and the looking back of a different person.

No, my criticism comes from this idea that memoir is a one-size-fits-all way to represent a person’s life. That anyone with a ghostwriter, a computer, and a celebrity personality/scandal/entertaining story can publish a worthwhile memoir. The memoir has exploded. The memoir worth writing is not the memoir of the famous screenwriter or the celebrity singer; the memoir worth reading has been carefully crafted, edited, and manipulated to show a person’s life without specific chronology, without all the details spoon-fed to us, without the writing handholding his or her reader every step of the way. As a creative nonfiction writer,  I acknowledge the immense difficulty of writing a memoir and writing it well. How to tell your own story, represent it for a reader–this thing is daunting and seems impossible. It is a form and a genre that is delicate and difficult to master. The well-written memoir is not about the story but instead how the story is told, how the narrative connects with the reflection.

 

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