Self-exploration, including confession, almost always involves other people. Some of them are bound to be offended by an honest memoir. But the good and honest memoir is neither revenge nor self-justification, neither self-celebration nor self-abnegation. It is a record of learning. – Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd
A couple of weeks ago, a well-read friend told me he had to look up the definition of memoir. I’ll admit – I was a little surprised. I thought – in my own bubble world of writing and literature – that everyone knew what a memoir was. The genre is so popular and gets slammed so often in articles and blog posts for being self-absorbed, that I just figured everyone knew how to identify one. I was wrong.
Here is what a memoir is – a self-told story of one aspect or time period of a person’s life. Some memoirs are about a particular experience, like Gail Caldwell‘s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, which tells the story of her relationship with her best friend Caroline Knapp and Knapp’s quick death from cancer. Some memoirs are about struggles such as addiction as in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story or abuse as in Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club. Not all memoirs are dark though – Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber is a lovely story of an American woman converting to Christianity while studying at one of England’s finest schools. And men write memoirs, too – take A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin, which chronicles his life in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn and in so doing captures a powerful story of immigration.
A memoir is not an autobiography. It does not tell all the elements of one person’s life, as autobiography claims to do (but which I doubt is even possible – we always make choices as writers). Instead, a memoir focuses in on one thing with the purpose of exploring that subject as the writer and taking the reader along on the journey. As Kidder and Todd say, memoir is about discovery; if the writer already knows all there is to know about a part of their life, if the “heat” has been taken away from the experience, then, the memoir will, likely, be tepid for the reader, too.
My favorite memoirs take this quest for discovery seriously by being very honest – both about the writer and the people in the tale. In so doing, they hold the writer accountable for her mistakes and choices just as much as anyone else. A good memoir gives me what happened and then shows me how the writer has learned from that experience.
I don’t want to read a memoir where someone blames others – even if the others deserve blame – because that feels immature and useless. Instead, show me how a person grows from an experience, how she comes to own her own life, how she comes to be able to touch her scars with a tender hand.
I love a good memoir, not because it’s self-absorbed, because a great self-told story transcends self and reaches out to help me see into people I love and even into the places where I’ve yet to shine light in myself.
What do you think about memoir? Have any great ones to recommend?
If you’re interested in writing your own memoir, I’m offering a six-week online class in the form that starts on February 24th. I’d love to have you join us. More information is available here – http://andilit.com/classes/.