Age of Memoir
For the past year, I've been monitoring the Times' nonfiction
paperback bestsellers, and I find that 80 percent (12 of 15) are
either memoirs or autobiographies. It's true that because I
write critically about memoir as well as teach and write the form,
I'm partial. But memoir's popularity still astounds me.
It's the literary form of our time. Why?
Americans are an impatient lot. We don't want to wait until
we're old and grey to discover what has mattered to us. The
memoir has evolved so that octogenarian or college student can use
the form to examine the emotional truths of their lives. Unlike
autobiography, memoir doesn't require swaths of time to pass before
attends to an illness, a joy, a tragedy. If you haven't already,
read Joan Didion's sudden memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the
immediate telling of her husband's death in 2004.
Americans are also a grouping lot. Increasingly, writers and readers,
brought together by a university extension writing class, are meeting
in small groups to read, to discuss each other's work, and
to be heard. Above the din of family. Away from the racket of work.
Nestled in a friend's living room where being heard is the
prime directive. In a culture bloated with pundits, doctors, publicists,
how-to gurus, lawyers, know-it-all family members, no one is listening.
The memoir form and the memoir group exist to pay full attention.
Another draw is the paradoxical anonymity of intimate writing. While
we may be known by our friends, our names on a published book or
essay are unrecognizable. An author as "nobody" fosters
in memoir readers the idea that they, too, can write their
tales. From an unknown writer, we get far more depth and daring than
the cookie-cutter as-told-to tales politicians, athletes, and stars
spin. We are moved by and identify with non-celebrities because their
stories are our stories as well.
Hence, boomers, new immigrants, survivors of tragedy, and the suddenly
ill, some in their 20s, comprise the new authorship. Writing about
conflict, or loss, authors may upset prejudices, unlock traumas,
and unseat preconceptions about their personality, gender, and age.
Memoir promotes maturity, a tack that is desirable as it challenges
the putative necessity of therapists.
Memoir is attractive because it leads us to new understanding or
back to our calling. Carl Jung saw that life extension
would usher in an age of individuation. Jung wrote that "a human
being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old
if this longevity had no meaning for the species." Personal
narrative brings us to unexpected mid- and late-life meaning, phases
of purposeful exploration we might neglect without such a prying
Memoir writing offers a new kind of relationship between writer and
subject. For an author to tell what's been bottled up inside
about her father, for example, she must show compassion and fairness
toward the man. In life, we may avoid this, but the memoir and the
reader insist that the feelings and perspectives of our subjects
(who are voiceless) be present. Read, or listen on tape, to the humanity
about family that Frank McCourt or Mary Karr achieve. There is not
one unsympathetic note in either.
Memoirists limit themselves. They carve out portions of their lives
– divorce, a passion, the death of a child – to address.
Such restraint allows
them to go far deeper than autobiographers do, who, too often,
survey only highs and lows. Memoirists activate memory: they dramatize
the bond between the person who is remembering (the writer now) and
the person who is being remembered (the self then). The disjoined
past and present are united, a healing tool vital to the writer and
to the reader who also seeks to mend. Such repair is evident in memoirists
like Jeannette Walls, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Barack Obama.
Finally, Oprah Winfrey has helped fuel the form. As the book's
best friend, she has featured memoirists of truth (Sidney Poitier)
and truancy (James Frey). Though riveting TV as it happened, the
Frey fracas has done negligible damage to the form. In fact, his
fiction clarified what is and is not acceptable for memoirists to
do. Those of us who love the memoir may thank Winfrey for making
Frey's lies her personal crusade and thereby elucidating the differences
between factual and emotional truth.
Memoir is the most democratic of literary forms and, thus, the most
American. It is also, for writer and reader, the most useful. To
write memoir asks only for our honesty in exchange for self-discoveries
that will change us and connect us to others. The memoir is in and
of our age. It is in us, and we are in it.
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