I read interesting post in Highbrow magazine about memoirs with the eye catching title “All About Me: How Memoirs Became the Literature of Choice.” We know that memoirists in the past have been called “narcissistic navel gazers,” and worse, but since more memoirs are being written and sold every year, the pundits who tried to showhorn our genre into the “selfish” corner of the literary world are taking another look, though many of the writers, like this one, can’t seem to help but take pot shots at memoirists, just for the ironic fun of it.
Note this significant bit of data: “The Christian Science Monitor reports that memoirs have seen sales increase from $170 million to $270 million since 1999. Most nonfiction MFA writing programs are geared substantially towards the genre; Hunter College even requires prospective students to submit a memoir proposal as part of their application.”
This is very satisying. When I went to graduate school in creative writing, there was poetry and fiction. Period. So the dissed cousin of “highbrow literature” is now a focus of schools, programs, and the heart center of many bookstores.
The writer of the article took issue with something that memoirists, I thought, have solved and settled as they lay new ground for this literature of choice: creating dialogue; writing about how things feel rather than just facts. This subjectivity seems to still be suspect, as if all of us every day don’t translate the “real” world, whatever that is, into something that makes sense to us in the river of our consciousness. Humans are all about making meaning, and even learning from our fellow humans about how to find our way in this world.
It is understood now that a memoir is a story that is put together from facts, yes they are allowed, interpretation and summary of events, and subjective exploration of memory, time, people, and life itself. It indeed is its own strange genre–one that allows the use of “I”, nay, requires it as the filtering consciousness through which the stories are told.
Memoirists probably will always be some kind of target though–we make people uncomfortable with our personal sharing, how much we reveal, the ways we explore the inner world of the “I.” This is intimate stuff indeed, and that’s why having a memoir community is so important–at least you can hang out with others who feel and write as you do.
When I wrote Don’t Call Me Mother, before memoir was big, before memoir was Memoir, I felt as if I were taking risks, running toward cliffs wearing paper wings not at all sure that I could fly. But what I found is that the effort of writing had strengthened me, and that there was lift in those wings. There is a magical element to writing and exploring through memoir that perhaps those who don’t do this odd, exposing thing won’t understand. All writing is brave, really, but to stand up and say, “This is true, these confessions, these bits of my inner self are Real,” takes a special kind of courage.
I’m glad to know that we can be prouder than ever to be memoirists, though the genre still has its doubters, but they don’t matter. We hunker down in our studio to write, follow the story as it leads us to new layers of revelation, and when we come out finally with a book, we look the audience in the eye and claim our story. We earned it, and our story will touch the hearts of others who come to us with curiosity in their eyes. We are changed by this act, and our words, the way that we have shared a part of our world, changes others. Maybe that is what we are all looking for in the new world of memoir–revelation about life, how to make it better and learn from each other.
I’m going to enjoy getting to know more memoirists in the new course I’m teaching with Brooke Warner starting next week: Starting Your Memoir Journey Now. And next month we are going to make sure you can fly by addressing the Muddy Middle of Memoir.
Thank you for this wonderful post. You have voiced my feelings exactly. After writing my memoir, LIFE INTERRUPTED – When the Doctor Becomes the Patient, I put it aside and proceeded to write three novels. Only at the suggestion of others did I decide the memoir should also be published – and only for the purpose of helping others on their journey. I was able to write the book straight from the heart and praise from readers has made the year long struggle well worth the effort. Waiting for the appropriate time for publication was the right decision.
I’m delighted that memoir is being taken more seriously by the public. I believe it is because we are living in a time when many are crying out for understanding and validation by their fellow man.
I would be most grateful if you checked out my website to see what this Senior Citizen is all about.
Hi Marie-thanks for your comments! Congratulations on your memoir, and you had a really good reason to publish your memoir–you help others. I agree–we all want to be understood, to reach out and connect with others. Stories are one way we are doing that a grass roots level. Good luck with your writing journey!
What a great post! Thanks for saying it all. I’ve always LOVED reading memoir because it’s helped me to navigate through my own life. And to write a memior is about healing the person bravely putting their words down on paper. There is nothing like it!
Thanks Joan. Yes memoir is a unique kind of activity that invites us to go inward, and eventually to move outward to share what we have learned and know with others. I love your blog posts that appear on the NAMW Facebook site! Keep writing and sharing.
Nice post! And once you’ve seen the truth of this perspective, there is no turning back. For those of us who have run toward the cliff, we have already discovered how much fun it is to fly. And more and more of us are taking flight! (Great image, I can picture all us memoir writers and aspiring memoir writers flying around making sense of our own and each other’s past from this higher vantage point.) And once you have been seen the power of your own story writing, you want to know more about other memoir writers too. It’s no longer a passive world with people sitting back and watching celebrities on television. In the memoir world we are giving and receiving stories.
Memory Writers Network
So true Jerry! We are all giving and receiving stories in memoirland. I see you picked up on the flying image–what fun. Yes, there is a heady sense of community and connection that we get it seems to me from sharing the deep stories that move us, from sharing what we know, and from reading the experiences of others. It feels like a circle. I know you contribute so much to the memoir world, and I’m so grateful to know you!
Linda, thanks so much for this thoughtful piece. I found it especially useful as a “look back” after finishing my memoir manuscript, now in the agent query stage. Writing it has changed me, settled issues that had been churning in my head for decades, and given me a perspective that feels new and comfortable. Without regard to what happens with my manuscript now, writing it has been a huge personal accomplishment.
Hi Earl, Thank you for visiting and commenting. I’m glad to hear how writing your stories has been transformative for you. This seems to be part of the universal experience of memoir writing–our own learning first, that we then share with others. Best of luck with your manuscript! Stay in touch and let us know more about your book.