What is the Contemporary Memoir?

by: Karen Propp

It’s no accident that the United States is the country in which the memoir is most alive—ideally, the form allows for the democratization of the individual. All lives are important, says the memoir. Every “I” has a voice. And speaking personally, even intimately, about one’s self seems to be a particularly American pastime. (Think Oprah. Think therapist’s offices. Think the confessional poets of the 1970s.)

The contemporary memoir is a form of autobiography, in that the writer is recounting true events from his or her own life. But the memoir is different from the autobiography in some crucial ways. Memoirs usually tell of a certain aspect of a life rather than the whole life. Memoir, says writer William Zinsser, is a “window into a life.” He means that memoir frames a particularly vivid or charged part of a life. Sometimes that charged time is childhood, but equally often that window could be, for example: the years spent training for a particular career; the first year of parenting; an illness or other crisis; a spiritual conversion; family; unemployment; prison. . . The field’s wide open. Often the most challenging part of writing a memoir is deciding where to place the frame. Into what window do you want your readers to see?

Another way memoirs differ from autobiography is that memoirs are less concerned with setting down the facts of an historical record and are more concerned with how you experienced events and what you think of those events. I want to record how the world comes at me,” says essayist Philip Lopate. Your memoir is the lens through which you see. And one of rewards of memoir writing is that often it’s a way of seeing the more clearly.

A memoir is meant to be read by other people. Memoirs are crafted and shaped and revised. A good memoir takes time and toil. And though the memoir may recount fairly recent events, it won’t be evaluating “the day before” because memoirs take longer than that to write.

Memoirs should also not be confused with diaries or journals, or even blogging, which mostly recount events as they happen. Diaries and journals are written mostly just for the writer. In these forms, the writer should let the words pour out without giving much thought to form or content. This kind of writing can be a useful tool with which to “vent” or “work through” your feelings, but should not be confused with the end result.

Story is memoir’s closest cousin. Sometimes called first-person narrative or first-person account, a memoir tells a story. Deciding what story to tell and how to tell it is what will distinguish a memoir. Deciding what story to tell means not only deciding whether to tell the story of the fire that ravaged your apartment building or the time you had a near-death experience, but also whether to begin the story with the moment you first smelled smoke or with a description of what your apartment looked like intact or with a time after the fire when you itemized your possessions. Deciding how to tell the story means deciding when to use dialogue, how to convey and develop a character (yourself; the insurance agent), when to describe, summarize, flashback . . . A memoir does not have to move in chronological order. Often they move fluidly back and forth in time. The memoirist has the fiction writer’s toolbox at his or her disposal. It may help if you think of a memoir as something that reads like a work of fiction… but is true.

The contemporary memoir is really a recent phenomenon. Some works in the past were certainly cut from the same cloth as the contemporary memoir – Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, to name a few. But the start of the contemporary memoir movement is often pinpointed as Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, a beautifully written account of a somewhat average boyhood, published in 1967. Gradually other memoirs of note began appearing, such as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. It became a craze, with memoirs sprouting all over the shelves of bookstores and frequently climbing the bestseller lists. And then there was Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, published in 1996, which became one of the most popular books of our time.

The memoir craze has leveled off a little since then, but memoirs continue to be published and read by millions of readers. For better or worse, the contemporary memoir has become an established and respectable form of literature. It seems it’s here to stay.

It’s important to understand that memoirs usually deal with a specific aspect of your life. If you tried to include your whole life or even a large segment of it, there would simply be too much to tell. Nor would you have a well-crafted story. You would have something closer to a historical autobiography. Or, perhaps, a mess.

Benjamin Franklin wrote a famous autobiography that chronicled many major events in his very eventful life. It’s called, appropriately enough, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. If he were alive today, however, and desired to write a contemporary memoir, he would write a substantially different book. He might write about his experience discovering electricity by flying a kite. Or he might write about the week in which the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Or he might write about his relationship with one of his mistresses. Or his wife. The point is: he would have to choose a specific aspect of his life for the book.

Finding the subject is one of the most challenging tasks for a memoir writer. Most beginning writers need trial and error to find their true subject or subjects. As a general rule, areas of your life that you find particularly charged or difficult or even terrifying yield the most interesting material and make your writing especially interesting. And what’s terrifying for you may not necessarily be the time you were robbed at gunpoint, but something subtler and deeper. For example, a silence in your childhood home that masked a shameful past or your career as a bodybuilder who lies and cheats in order to win. Memoir allows you to dig deep and dredge up. Memoir allows you to show yourself to the reader warts and all. If the reader only sees your “best” sides, they are less willing to care. The more honest you are about yourself, the better the reader will trust and like you. And this takes courage; the courage to really enter into an experience you have had and ask yourself challenging questions about the material. Expect to be changed by your writing. Expect to be surprised.

When I was writing the memoir that eventually became In Sickness & In Health: A Love Story, the most difficult part was finding my true subject. Although I always knew I wanted to write about the experience of prostate cancer from a woman’s point of view (something that had not been done before and that I thought was important) it took me trial and error, as well as time and emotional distance, to find what was really my story. My first drafts were heavy on medical information, with many details about the hospital and visits to doctors. I worked from notes I’d taken at the time. Going through the experience I did in fact become something of an expert on a particular disease. But gradually I realized that I was not really meant to write a nonfiction cancer narrative. I’m not a medical expert. I’m not a science writer. What I really had to write was a memoir of a marriage touched by prostate cancer. And that, it turned out, was both easy and difficult. Easy because that was really what I knew and cared about. And difficult because I had to dig deep and figure out what I truly thought and felt.

--Why have memoirs become so popular? Certainly one reason is that, as a society, we have become more open.

Many topics that were once taboo are now shared freely – addiction, abuse, incest, homosexuality, illness, poverty, racism… the list goes on. Our openness has also made us more curious about people different from ourselves – other races, religions, occupations, etc. If you’re a Muslim growing up in Alabama, we want to hear about it. If you and your entire family have wrestled with a gambling addiction, we’re interested.

As William Zinsser, editor of Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, wrote:

"Until this decade memoir writers tended to stop short of harsh reality, cloaking with modesty their most private and shameful memories. Today no remembered episode is too sordid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out for the wonderment of the masses in books and magazines and on talk shows."

Such openness is largely a good development. But there is such a thing as too much sharing. We’ve all had the experience of someone telling us much more than we want to know. The primary risk with memoirs is that they can easily become indulgent, rambling tracts full of self-glorification and/or self-mutilation. In short, they can come off as mostly… me, me, me, me, me!

And that can be very boring.

The memoir writer must be aware of this risk. If you want to write a good memoir, you must be able to answer the question of: Who cares?

People will indeed care about your story if… you tell a good story. And if that story has some universal meaning that touches on lives other than your own. Just as with good fiction, the aim is to create something that is both entertaining and meaningful. You need to keep the reader turning pages. And you need to offer some universal truths about the human experience that reader can ponder and relate to. In short, you memoir must be crafted so it provides the maximum amount of entertainment and enlightenment.