What Exactly Is a Literary Memoir

First let’s define a few terms:

Journal – just that.  A collection of dated entries that gather force by accretion of experience, always chronological. Many people, myself included, keep private journals for their own amazement and amusement. Some journals, however, are meant from the start as public works (Sue Hubble’s A Country Year, Rick Bass’ Oil Notes, May Sarton’s At Seventy).  The preface of  Reeve Lindbergh’s No More Words, about her experience seeing her mother succumb to Alzheimer’s, reads thus: “These pages represent a kind of journal, with chapters taken from my own diary entries, written off and on between May 1999, the time my mother came to live with us in Vermont, and February 7, 2001, when she died.  I first began to keep a record of this period for myself alone, hoping to make some sense of my turbulent thoughts, feelings, and moods surrounding my mother’s presence and care…This is not, however, an exact reproduction of my diary…I found myself expanding upon the original entries as I typed them into the computer, adding a new thought here or an old memory there, as these thoughts and memories came to me.”  Journal material often finds its way into memoirs.

Autobiography – from birth to “death”/fame; chronological, linear, factual narrative; purports to get the facts right; involves research and factual accuracy –“history” as opposed to how one remembers one’s own life.

Memoirs – as in “the general writes his…” Usually associated with famous people or people who want to capture their life stories because they feel they’re important or maybe just of interest to their families – usually not concerned with questions of truth, memory, imagination, literary style – sees things pretty straightforward; reminiscing. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which won the National Book Award this year (2010), strikes me as her memoirs, rather than a memoir.  But these terms are not discreet necessarily. Smith’s book is not actually identified as a memoir on the cover.  It feels to me as if it draws heavily on journals from the period which she is writing about, the late sixties and seventies, and it recounts her early years with Robert Mapplethorpe, their development as artists, and the wide cast of characters, famous and otherwise, whom they met in New York.  It doesn’t seem to me to have the terms of a literary memoir, which is fine, because it has its own terms: it captures the time and place, and is of interest because of Smith and Mapplethorpe and their artistic world in New York at that time.

Personal Essay: can be memoiristic and often is; Philip Lopate (the expert on the personal essay form) on essay: The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy – writer seems to be speaking directly to your ear – through sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue – a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, companionship.  A conversation with the reader, an informed mixture of personality, wisdom, facts, and storytelling.  Writers look for universal in individual experience – open as free verse. Some full-length books are extended personal essays, such as Great Plains by Ian Frazier.  Sometimes memoirs contain varying degrees of personal essay.

Example of Jonathan Franzen’s “My Father’s Brain” – in How to be Alone – The piece starts with memory, but includes research on Alzheimer’s –

Creative non-fiction.  Umbrella term – could be travel writing, nature writing, food writing, crime writing like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, or reportage like Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm: A true Story of Men against the Sea, or Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  Does not tend to originate in memoir, but in the current world.  Sometimes used to arch over memoir also.

Literary memoir.  Originates in memory, in personal experience.  And the contract with the reader is that you’re telling the truth as you know it and have discovered it and believe it to be true.  Usually takes a portion of a life; childhood, for example, or deals with a specific theme or experience – and disregards the rest of the life. Examples: Angela’s Ashes about growing up impoverished in Limerick, Ireland; Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club about a childhood in oil country in Texas in a dysfunctional family; or a serious challenge one faces such as an illness, catastrophe, crisis – Mark  Doty’s Heaven’s Coast; Girl, Interrupted, Susana Kasen; death of a parent, Philip Roth’s Patrimony; Katherine Rich’s The Red Devil – to Hell with Cancer and Back.  Being Catholic and a spiritual quest, Virgin Time by Patricia Hampl.  Franzen’s and Reeve Lindbergh dealing with their parents’ Alzheimer’s.  Margaret Wurtele dealing with the death of her son; or a personal, cultural or racial exploration, such as Korean adoptee Jane Jeong Trenka trying to make sense of the dualities of being born Korean and raised in America, in MN, or Toi Derricot’s The Black Notebooks: an Interior Journey about being a light-skinned black woman who confronts what it means to be a black woman living in a racially divided world, or Carolyn Heilbrun’s The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. Or Somewhere Towards the End, by Diana Athill, written when she was 89, about being old.  They can also cover experiences in the natural world, or living in a different , perhaps exotic locale, like Isak Dinnesen’s Out of Africa (“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”)  or capture an undramatic trip down a river on a houseboat, like Nessa Rapoport’s House on the River, which is a meditation on memory, the past, the connection between generations.  Many memoirists place a personal story against a larger political or historical context – memoirist can become the voice of a whole culture or time – Autobiography of Malcolm X – Primo Levy writing about the Holocaust experience.

Memoir is about the writer’s experience even if it is “about” someone else. Example of The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham – about her father committing suicide, and exploring his life to figure out why, but it is her experience that she is recounting, what she experienced, thought, felt, what his death did to her and what she made of that.  We identify and relate to her struggle as the one who had the experience.  She uses an index as the structure, which is an interesting example of finding a form that lets her tell the story she wants to tell, to deal with the material in a way that is creative and functions well.   She probably had bits and pieces of the material and found a way to organize them via the index:  Here’s from the book’s index:

Suicide:

act of

attempt to imagine, 1 – 4

bare-bones account, 5-6

immediate aftermath, 7 – 34

belief that change of scene might unlock emotion concerning, 44-47

day after

brother’s appearance, 48-53

etc.

Memoir has narrative shape; story; has a subject and focus, involves reflection to some degree; generally, though not always, attention to language and style; many memoirs are written by writers who work in other genres like fiction or poetry, but can also be written by unknowns, people who have a story to tell.  Each person finds his or her own way to write their story – there’s no one way, and you get to write the book you want to write, the way you want to write it.  But it helps to connect with what readers find interesting, engaging, irresistible, compelling.  You eventually want to be able to write to some extent as if you’re not only the writer but also the reader – to be able to perceive as a reader how your writing is coming across.  The only way I know to do this is to read a lot.

Memoir often is both story and essay – to the extent that it reflects – but degree of both can vary greatly.  We experience another mind on the page, musing; have the experience of intimacy with another person, a voice speaking truth – at least emotional and psychological truth.  “Memoir can present its story AND consider the meaning of the story.” (Patricia Hampl)  Hampl again: “True memoir is written, like all literature, in an attempt to find not only a self but a world.  To write one’s life is to live it twice, and the second living is both spiritual and historical, for a memoir reaches deep within the personality as it seeks its narrative form and it also grasps the life-of-the-times as no political analysis can.”

We’re attracted to what really happened – experience unfiltered through fiction or fantasy – and also how someone else deals with life experience – with pain or loss or trauma or being gay or coming of age, or whatever.  We look for wisdom, understanding, not just the experience, but what the writer MAKES of it. HOW you say what happened to you, not just what happened.  Not only do I want to say it, but I want to say it well.

We accept that imagination is involved, to the extent that the person is remembering and writing and re-creating experience – not doing an actual factual recording.  We understand the fallibility of memory – the unreliability of it – but our understanding is that the writer is doing his or her best to capture the truth of the matter.  Not to fabricate, not to make things out to be what they weren’t.  But we accept shaping and rearranging of time – example of Patricia Hampl making two pilgrimages to Italy, but compressed them into one story in Virgin Time.

Memoirists often use of the tools of the novelist: scene, characters, drama, and dialogue, plot.

The important distinction in memoir is the difference between reminiscence and revelation.  You’re not just remembering; you’re discovering something.

Vivian Gornick: “Good Writing has two characteristics…It’s alive on the page, and the reader is persuaded that the writer is on a voyage of discovery.”

She goes on to pose these questions for the memoirist: “Is the narrator indulging in self-serving confessionalism here, or is the narrator honestly going to try to get to the bottom of the matter being presented, showing me the widest view and making the deepest sense of what happened…Do I believe this voice? Am I attracted by this tone? Am I drawn to this persona? And beyond that, Does the shape of the writing compel? Is the language expressive? Is the story being told through tone, language and shape?”

4 Replies to “What Exactly Is a Literary Memoir”

  1. What a bunch of CRAP!
    A memoir or memoirs are written as you remember them, Not a "Voyage of discovery". They're already memories, for Christ's sake.
    Writing to find one's self. What a crock.

    1. Unfortunately, howard doesn't understand the literary nature of memoir. Too bad. There are two narrator voices in memoir, the main character experiencing it historically, the older and wiser narrator, who is relating the story. Their are two flavors of truth – the younger, more naive character, who doesn't fully understand anything further than the moment, and writer, who from a distance is able to 'discover' the hidden truths unavailable to the younger version of the main character. I use the word character, since no words can actually capture the complexity of a human being, so memoir, or any historical description of a human are very limited and narrow views. Memoir is always accepted as an attempt to access truth over literal accuracy, since it's the memoirists analysis and view point that are the lens through which it is presented.

  2. Thanks heaps for the great outline of what a memoir should be, I am just about to write one for a school task and I think this really helped me to know what some of the conventions are and what it should be trying to convey. Cheers!

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