I've read a lot of memoirs over the past few years. For a while, I even dabbled at writing one, a sort of set the record straight document. While some fiction contains elements of life experience, writing a memoir relies upon one's fiction writing talents. When I read memoirs, I know, for example, that the writer is not remembering past conversations verbatim. Some license is taken in recording details, and I, as the reader, understand that what I am reading is being delivered in a manner to maximize dramatic effect. Memoir differs from autobiography in the delivery. Memoir is a story, autobiography is a recording of a sequence of events.
As I worked on my memoir, I attended some workshops and read some books to help facilitate the process. I learned a few things. First, a great many people believe that their stories are extraordinary and would have a wide appeal. We are right in that our stories are all extraordinary. Every life holds magic and wonder and transcendence. But we are almost always wrong about the wide appeal part. After I swam way out into the middle of the icy lake of my own story, and a little voice whispered, "Yes, Nancy. But what's the point?" It's a humbling event when one can't answer that question. What is the point, indeed. I keep hoping that some day there will be one. In the meantime, the memoir sleeps in a REM stage.
Second, where critique groups are concerned, submitting a memoir to a critique group places an unfair burden on the group. Group members find themselves in a position where they risk criticizing someone's life rather than the content or delivery. Readers can't exactly say that the story is not credible. In the end, I withdrew it as a project from my critique group because I felt as though my readers saw that I was soliciting feedback on a document of uncontrolled self-disclosure, when what I wanted to know was how it read as a story. Asking a critique group to read a memoir just ain't fair.
There's something so pleasurable about reading a well-written memoir, though. Getting lost in a life, and knowing that it isn't fiction is somehow more engrossing. I've read many wonderful memoirs in recent years. The Color of Water, The Glass Castle, Living to Tell the Tale, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Warrior Woman are some of my favorites. The pair, Autobiography of a Face and Truth in Beauty especially captivated me as a story of a life and then another memoir of a friendship that looked on from a perspective that revealed a completely different story.
I've read many others, some I found over indulgent and bulging with ego. But enough great ones are around to keep me interested in the genre.
A New York Times Book Review reviewer published an article in recent months, stating that memoir is a useless genre. The writer was so scathing and pompous that he implied the only people more naive and boring than the memoir writers are the people shallow enough to read them. I believe that there are a great many stories worth telling and worth reading. Sure, we can flaunt our intellectual prowess by pigeon-holing them: The abused child memoir, The incest survivor, The adopted child, The teen pregnancy, The alcoholic treatment memoir, The coming out as a gay person memoir.. I've read memoirs by people who fit each of these categories. But I'm not jaded enough to believe that stories owning these natures are boring because someone else has told them. A story well-told will always stand on its own and need not strain to circumvent worn trails.
So, I'll keep reading memoirs. And maybe in the quiet of my office, I will keep a silent vigil over my own sleeping manuscript.