Somewhere between documentary and created personal myth, today’s memoir is a seductive medium. After all, whom is more interesting to write about than one’s self? Memoir writing is recalling events stored in human memory. It’s currently a popular form for writers of essays and creative non-fiction. Some memoirs even strive to report life rooted in fact.
Resting at a way-sign, Pyrenees Pilgrimage, September 2001. Old-style ‘selfie’ photo.
I looked up memoir in my Hachette Oxford French dictionary and was surprised to see that the literary context is the third meaning of the word, after a full column of English meanings related to administrative memos, dissertations, legal statements, and computer storage. Why did I look up memoir in a French dictionary? Because those pesky French are dedicated to meticulous language management and the book was easier to lift than Vol. 1 of the Shorter OED.
It turns out that the OED dedicates less space to the word memoir and roughly follows the order of meaning as presented in the French-English dictionary. The OED’s second meaning is “A record of events or history from personal knowledge or from special sources of information; an autobiographical or (occas.) biographical record.” A record of events or history from personal knowledge.
Nothing about idealized autobiography, my life according to me, or too-vivid recollection laced with exciting falsehoods and recreated dialogue.
I enjoy reading memoirs, or at least I did, until just about everybody breathing decided their life was interesting enough to report. (Or embellish, in the case of some creative non-fiction writers.) Most memoirs I dip into and reject have the depth of a corridor and the nuance of two walls. I’ll call those the memory lane story books.
To write a memoir you have to have a life to write about. A full life, not a single turning point or a shocking event. Too many memoirs trace skeins of recollection that knit a hair shirt of abusive or cruel parents, wallow in voluntary pursuit of sexual, criminal or chemical excess, or turn on happenstance. Are there memoirs-in-the-making that center on “What happened to me on 9-11.”
Let’s look at “this terrible thing happened to me” memoir. Some of the voices telling these escapades are self-involved, linear talk-show chatter glued between covers. Or they preach and warn, as if lives followed predictable routes. Am I cruel to say that these writers don’t seem to have much else to examine or write about arising from their lives except “the big bad thing.”
Then there are the “I survived, so you can too” memoirs that suggest that people’s lives can be compared. They can’t be; we’re all way too different. Two legs, two arms, and two eyes, etc. doesn’t make us similar or the same in terms of experience, psyche, brain or behavioral type.
Perhaps people with only one big life event to discuss shouldn’t attempt memoir. At least not until they’ve lived a life – say, three score or seventy years – and can put the big event in context. To limit their personal horizons to focus on an experiential element that’s still governing their thoughts years ex post facto, signals to me that the authors haven’t thought enough, haven’t placed their experiences in perspective or used the big event to learn something useful to the rest of us. Does publication expiate demons?
The writers who explore their memoirs of personal obsessions and failings also abuse the publishing platform. To me, it is intellectually short sighted to operate under the premise that addictions and low-life explorations are unique. Just because an author chooses not to write about a sexually defined youth doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. Or two hundred. If an author decides to gloss over the scummy process of drug rehab doesn’t mean it was easy. I’m suggesting a little restraint and living life long enough to have something to say. Do we really need more books about how stupid, dependent, vapid and weak humans can be?
A few gifted writers parse their personal sufferings in a useful way without pandering to the gawkers. Most of us just sound silly babbling in over-exposure; therapy sessions gone public.
The genre I know best is travel memoir. The travel memoirist steers lightly across memory lane, in the context of the journey through a place. The elegance lies in developing and expanding the people encountered and the settings absorbed, rather than simply prattling about the writer’s perspectives on the people or opinion of places seen. Perhaps the travel memoir about place meets a touchstone in the author’s past experience, just for a moment.
The travel memoir edges towards being biography of place. History, commentary by other visitors, language and cultural change, climate and geography all play in a travel-ish memoir.
I urge focus on the people of a place. Let the locals show and tell their story. The travel memoirist reports their narratives set in the structure of the author’s journey. If a situation tempts you to follow memory lane and its tangents, go ahead and write, but be prepared to sharpen the de-boning knife and slice off that self-indulgent thigh meat, perhaps to be used elsewhere.
At issue is the reader’s expectation. The reader of a travel memoir wants the story of the trip and will tolerate digressions that illuminate the person doing the trip. But, when the tangent down memory lane engages characters we don’t know and haven’t met in the current narrative, or enters realms of the author’s head, or cites the ‘you had to be there at the time’ excuse, best to cut. In travel memoir, the subject is the place, not you and what it means to you.
Sometimes the universe contrives to teach. In a chapter in my book on walking across France in the Pyrenees, I was discussing meeting a traveler on the footpath. He was headed to Santiago and the spittin’ image of someone I was fond of and traveled with during my twenties, one of those spirited youthful adventures memory laners are fond of writing about. It was fun to write about this tangent to my journey and each time I revised the chapter, that particular segment grew. After all, what is more interesting than our own selves? Soon I was poking around in my own mind more than connecting the reader with the place and action at hand, which in this instance was St. Jean Pied du Port, a gateway city to the Camino.
While I wrote about how amazed I was that some stranger who looked just like Dr. X was proposing we walk a long distance together, just like X and I had talked about during cross country road trips, I easily slid back into the mid 1970’s. I was writing happily in my memory lane.
Meanwhile, waves of sheep were scampering across the farm lane where we were chatting. A storm the night before had watered the pastures, revived the grass. A cheese-making town was just over that ridge and a few miles ahead, the pilgrimage way station of Ostabat. The reader of a travel memoir about Basque lands probably wants to know about how two shepherds and three dogs control several hundred sheep, wants to taste the local cheese, perhaps read about the medieval traditions of pilgrimage and how the locals greet modern day pilgrims. The reader wants to be in the moment of that travel scene. But I was more interested in exploring my fond memories and the crossed stars of coincidence.
Now, don’t come away with the idea that you leave yourself out of the memoir narrative. Not at all. Proportion is the key. Readers of memoir want to know the narrator and some of the quirky experiences that make the author believable and consistent. They also want context and factual grounding.
Personal experience makes more sense set against a fact based backdrop. Let the reader know what the world at large was doing while you were stuck in rehab or losing wealth as the dot-com you founded foundered. Use your life to make a point, but make sure the lesson is larger than your “oh poor me” feelings.
I’ll finish up in just a sentence or two, but first, I want to tell you how the universe conspired to teach me the difference between memory lane and travel memoir.
The universe arranged that my computer flashed a fatal error message and blasted into the black hole beyond your hard drive, the version of my Basque walk with all the memory lane stuff, which I hadn’t yet saved.
Gone, all my musings about the meaning of meeting the duplicate stranger on the path to Santiago. When I re-read the earlier version that survived the error blackout, I realized that the chapter was better for having lost the paragraphs of infatuation with coincidence and self-indulgent memory lane gazing.
Note: A slightly different version of this essay appeared in Wordhouse, a Baltimore publication for writers.