Orientation at MSU. August of 2006. Two days before the rest of the freshmen were scheduled to pour onto campus, filtering into their dorms and getting blasted during a real Welcome Week (i.e. one without classes or responsibility). I am sitting in a lecture hall in Wells. Beside me, another Samantha is babbling away. We met at the folding table outside, where we signed in and received our plastic bag filled with random MSU information, a pen, and a copy of Jeanette Wall’s memoir, The Glass Castle. The other Samantha latched onto me, immediately making me regret returning her exuberant greeting.
But the four solid hours of mild irritation and homicidal thoughts aren’t what’s important here. It’s that copy of The Glass Castle.
In some kind of attempt to bridge the divide (filled with cheap beer, loud music, and burning couches) between the community of East Lansing and the university students, the “One Book, One Community” program selected a single book every year that was to be the focal point of a series of discussions and events in East Lansing. Freshmen were supposed to read this book and highly encouraged to participate in the activities surrounding it.
However, the ROIAL program wasn’t content with mere encouragement. As part of the required class for freshman members of the program, we had to read this book and attend a variety of those damn events, including a community round-table discussion.
But I digress.
I do that.
Attending said events was torturous for me because I truly loathed the book. It was a story about a neglectful, vaguely abusive family. To me, it felt like a writer from the Lifetime network attempting to be profound.
However, with the middle class white women of East Lansing (and the middle-aged white gentlemen with half-assed pretensions at literary appreciation), the book was a big hit.
The book helped solidify an opinion of mine that I’d been fostering for a few years: Memoir is a bullshit genre.
Today, however, as I casually perused a November issue of New York magazine, I found myself rather engrossed in an article about James Frey (infamous author of A Million Little Pieces). While Frey was in agreement with me on the “memoir as bullshit” theory, I found myself mulling the question over for the remainder of the night.
What? My job is incredibly boring.
Perhaps it was because I had never actually given the topic such an intense scrutiny before (instead basing my bulldog opinion on a few poor books), but I found myself re-evaluating my idea of the memoir and its importance as a literary genre.
Don’t worry- I’ll talk you through my change of heart, dear galleons.
To begin, it would be helpful to identify exactly what a memoir is. A major problem with memoir as a genre is that it often seems to overlap that of autobiography. So, how do we determine whether someone sat down and wrote their autobiography or their memoir?
The most basic way to tell autobiography from memoir is this: autobiography covers the author’s entire life, while memoir focuses only on a particular portion of it (the portion important to the overall narrative of the memoir).
I like to think of it a bit differently, though. Autobiography is comprised primarily of the researchable facts of a person’s life- the mundane things like when they were born, where they grew up, where they went to school, who they married, their children’s names, etc. When taken in conjunction with the fact that most autobiographies are of quite famous individuals, what we get is a very humanizing portrait of a larger-than-life figure. Those rote facts, those commonplace happenings- they are what help us feel connected to these grand people, as we share similar threads in our own lives.
Memoir, on the other hand, often has the extraordinary, horrific, or otherwise interesting as its focus. Usually written by a relatively unknown individual, a memoir focuses less on those basic, uniting bits of life and more on a special, quite unique part of a person’s life. From the story of a near-death experience to the time in office of a former president (I said these people were usually unknowns, but that’s not always the case), these are stories of a person’s life.
That’s the important part.
Hold onto that for a moment, as we’re going to be coming back to it.
Memoir as a genre has gone through a recent boom in popularity, with beginnings in the early 90s. And, as memoir has become increasingly popular, so too has the genre elicited a slew of complaints (not just by myself):
“Everybody knows that memoirs are bullshit, but they still read them because they have to satisfy the need to force the world into a pretty frame.” ~Paul Constant
Critics of memoir have lashed out at the exhibitionism and unseemliness of the genre. Like dinner guests who violate decorum by talking incessantly about themselves, memoirists are accused of being excessively vain and egotistical.
But, of course, the greatest attack of memoir as a genre comes from the fact that there are a substantial number of “memoirs” out there that are being found to be utter fiction. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, while probably the most well-known example of memoir fraud, is by no means an isolated incident. Misha Defonseca, author of Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, is not a Holocaust survivor. She didn’t murder a Nazi who tried to rape her, nor was she raised by wolves. Margaret Selzer, author of Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival, lied about her ethnicity, her membership in the Bloods, and she faked a nonprofit organization just to support her book.
That is not to say that all memoirs are false, however. Generalizing like that is a despicable thing to do- the actions of a few individuals shouldn’t color an entire category of authors. And yet, they do.
People spend so much time lambasting memoir for the actions of a few authors that they completely ignore what makes memoir such a powerful, important genre. Just why is memoir so popular?
“Why We Tell Stories” Lisel Mueller
Because we used to have leaves
and on damp days
our muscles feel a tug,
painful now, from when roots
pulled us into the ground
and because our children believe
they can fly, an instinct retained
from when the bones in our arms
were shaped like zithers and broke
neatly under their feathers
and because before we had lungs
we knew how far it was to the bottom
as we floated open-eyed
like painted scarves through the scenery
of dreams, and because we awakened
and learned to speak
We sat by the fire in our caves,
and because we were poor, we made up a tale
about a treasure mountain
that would open only for us
and because we were always defeated,
we invented impossible riddles
only we could solve,
monsters only we could kill,
women who could love no one else
and because we had survived
sisters and brothers, daughters and sons,
we discovered bones that rose
from the dark earth and sang
as white birds in the trees
Because the story of our life
becomes our life
Because each of us tells
the same story
but tells it differently
and none of us tells it
the same way twice
Because grandmothers looking like spiders
want to enchant the children
and grandfathers need to convince us
what happened happened because of them
and though we listen only
haphazardly, with one ear,
we will begin our story
with the word and
We are storytellers. That is what humans do. We’ve been doing it since time immemorial.
So, when a supposedly learned individual protests memoir because “the concept of a memoir suggests the imposition of a fictional narrative structure onto a life,” I can’t help but want to laugh. Because that’s what we, as a species, do. We spend our lives trying to overlay the chaos of the universe with a series of rules and patterns. We develop systems of belief (or laws of science) to explain the workings of the world around us, because we can’t handle the pure mess of existence. We have religion and philosophy to help us cope. We create routines and traditions to build a sense of order.
One could argue that that’s all civilization is- an attempt at constructed order to mask the wild, chaotic nature of reality.
Stories are one of the ways we create a sense of order in our lives. Stories have a structure, a message, a purpose. They take the random, messy happenings of a life or an event or a situation and make them into something informative, thought-provoking, or emotionally moving.
As I’ve mentioned before, I am a veritable connoisseur of folklore, fairy tales, and mythology (as an aside, I finally purchased the book I mention in that post and am currently in the process of reading it… we will be discussing it in greater depth in the near future). And these are perfect examples of people giving a narrative structure to events in order to teach a lesson. We’ve been using these stories for ages to teach children about morality and the world around them.
Memoir is tangential to this, feeding off the same driving urge to impose order in the world around us. Do our lives really have a “narrative structure?” Of course not. Our lives, like the universe, are messy. But even within our own minds, when thinking about our lives, we impose that story structure onto the time we’ve been alive. Memories, as we replay them, unfold as brief story moments. That was not the reality of the moment as we lived it, but it has become the story we tell when looking through the filters of time and knowledge. As Diane Ackerman states in her An Alchemy of Mind:
“…we remember a whole event, not a spray of sensations, everything blends in the large association cortices that make up most of the neocortex.”
So to say that memoir is bullshit for acknowledging this aspect of our brains is preposterous. Back to Ackerman:
“It’s not enough to be startling, beautiful, artful, it has to mean, even if much of life simply is.”
I would argue that, in many ways, memoir is more honest, more truthful, than autobiography could ever be. Memoir blatantly puts out there that this is what happened… but it’s what happened through the lens of the self. Through that associating, pattern-finding, chatty thing called consciousness. This is what happened, and this is what we can learn from it. Because what good are life experiences if we learn nothing from them?
You learn nothing substantial from an autobiography. By stabbing at objective truth (which none of us selfish, subjective beings has any real concept of), it misses the point of sharing your life, your past, your experiences. Or even, not just of sharing them, but examining them yourself. The choices we make, the situations we muddle through, the people we meet… we have memories of them for a reason. Memory is a learning tool. We use it to build templates of the world, to develop mechanisms for dealing with common (and uncommon) situations, to help find those patterns we so desperately need in order to stay sane.
So, the most natural way to sit down and write a chronicle of a portion of your life is to do so with that imposition of narrative structure, as that is how our memories are. And to choose a portion of your life that, in retrospect, has meaning or importance or something to be learned about life or the human condition… well, to be perfectly frank, if you aren’t sharing something like that, what’s the point of publishing your memoir?
Truth in writing is not always about pure fact. We are emotional creatures, and the importance of emotional truth and resonance in writing is something we need to factor heavily into discussions and criticisms of non-fiction. And while I’m not condoning the actions of the Freys and Selzers out there, I find that I have to stand up for the genre as a whole. In memoir, there is truth. In memoir, there is meaning. And as we spend our entire lives searching for meaning and purpose, I think these glimpses of the truths of our existence are among the most important pieces of literature being created.
We’ll end with a quote by Lisa Dale Norton:
“Memoir is the close inspection of some slim aspect of one’s lived experience in which the writer uses every writerly technique available to craft a compelling story that explores the human dilemma and in the process unearths some truth central to his life.”