When a memoir is not a memoir

Monday, July 22, 2013

This weekend I bought and read two memoirs, reflections upon which I had hoped to share here.

That isn't going to happen, and the reason, quite simply, is this: These memoirs are not memoirs. They are autobiographies with big chunks of fiction thrown in.

I hate when that happens.

Because I try hard never to use my blog as a vehicle of negativity—because I know how it feels to see your book bruised by a reader's dismay—I will not name those books here, will not quote from them, will not throw you the double wink-wink. I will, instead, offer general thoughts on the form itself, especially those authorial decisions that can throw a memoir off the rails.

First, I always wonder about "memoirs" in which large swaths of dialogue are quoted at length. I grow especially concerned when that dialogue is sourced from a time before or during or just after (even a long time after) the writer's own birth. Who was recording these conversations in such detail? Did the baby-writer herself overhear the doctors talking, for example, and make special note of this for later? Did the father and mother bring pen and pad to the birthing room? Did they take note of who looked out the window when, and how the father adjusted his tie, and why the mother chose that particular instant to brush the hair from her eyes? Memory fails, and we make room for myths, and we understand the power of family lore. But when a writer goes on for many pages—chapters, even—about events that clearly no one recorded, when she asserts the facts rather than overtly imagines them, I find that I am, as a reader, in trouble.

Second, memoir is, in the end, more closely aligned with poetry and art than it is with records and documents. The writers I read this weekend were far more interested in plunking down the facts (or the invented facts) as purely informational fare, in sentences stripped bare. This happened to me, then this happened to me, then this happened to me, they wrote. Next chapter: This happened to me. So locked into the facts of their own story did these writers become that they forgot to look up and glance toward the reader and ask, Have you felt this way, too? Or, Life is funny, isn't it? These writers locked their readers out. They did not share the stage.

It's especially concerning—but enormously common—when both things happen at once. The writer both pretends to know many things that she cannot know (the art of fiction) and she sets those facts down so plainly and without artistic care that she is telegraphing (wittingly or not) her belief that the plot of her life is, in and of itself, enough. No need to play with structure. No need to hunt for themes. No need to play with a metaphor. What happened is big. It is sufficient. It is, by definition, memoir.

But it's not.

For more thoughts on the making of memoir, please visit my Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir page. 


Taurean Watkins said...

I feel for you, Beth. This is why I get angry when people suggest I write about my life.

I'm not ready, dang it!

You more eloquently explain why. Thanks for sharing.

Serena said...

Wise words. This is why indeed I've not read much memoir because so much of those I've read are plunking down facts and that to me is biography

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