All About You! Yes, a Memoir is About You–So Be Brave and Write!



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.