What the Hell Is Memoir: The Debate Is Ongoing….
a guest post by poet and writer Jenne R, Andrews
Today I stumbled across a discussion on a thread in the Memoir Group on She Writes about the difference between memoir and autobiography which necessarily addresses the issue of what memoir is and isn’t. Hope Edelman, author of the best-selling The Possibility of Everything weighed in, ably giving the distinctions and definitions currently– and to me quite unfortunately– in vogue. Here is my reply; please Fed Ex me some band-aids for the fall-out (jra)
“Hope’s comment is germaine in my view: “This is what was once meant by “memoirs” with an S, as in “I’m writing the whole story of my life from the point of age and wisdom I’ve finally achieved.” A memoir is a more artfully rendered narrative that’s informed by memory and the author’s interpretation of events. Emotional truth is often as important, and sometimes even more desirable than factual accuracy. (Don’t shoot me, journalists! But this is true.)” –Hope Edelman.
I do take issue with “This is what was once meant…”– some of us still view “Memoir” this way. With respect to Ms. Edelman’s definition of memoir as an “artfully rendered narrative that’s informed by memory and the author’s interpretation of events” there is an implied assumption that a given narrative is art as opposed to the unadorned journal of catharsis it often is. Regarding the labored construct of ”…artfully rendered narrative informed by memory…” Ms. Edelman’s own memoir, The Possibility of Everything, was penned in the wake of taking her daughter to a purported healer in Mexico. She must mean memory across the spectrum– encompassing very recent memory, that which is recalled in the wake of experience. By that definition everything one writes that is not in the present tense is memoir. ”Factual accuracy” is another problematic phrase; we wouldn’t read memoir if we didn’t think we were reading a true story and a true story depends on fact. ”Emotional truth” cannot possible be truth, as what one lives is experienced subjectively.
In any event, the “memoir” boom set in motion by Mary Karr’s The Liars Club and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes– although a number of wonderful contemporary autobiographical, memoir-ish narratives preceded that book such as Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education– has seen a shift in how memoir is defined.
In fact, the word has been hijacked to legitimize a recent– as in the last twenty-five years– sub-genre–if we can even dignify it all by calling it a genre– of personal confession/revelation, much of it by writers younger than those one might traditionally view to possess the sufficient perspective to write “memoir.” Accordingly, I am going to use the phrase “autobiographical narrative” to discuss what others call “memoir” in the remainder of this essay.
Numerous advocates of AN claim, and Ms. Edelman so alludes, that its objective is to locate one’s “personal truth”. I advocate for something more exact than the term “personal truth” to characterize what the best of autobiographical narrative in current favor offers– something along the lines of ”realization”, even “epiphany” that on a good day, resonates with with the reader.
It appears to me that if “truth” finding is the mission, the matter of whether one is creating literature or not falls by the wayside. Further, in permitting ourselves to consume so much pulp nonfiction, we have created a market for it. We have become voyeurs, and we love that window into someone else’s private life– even to climb in the window and rummage through the underwear drawer. If the voyeuristic appetite did not exist, neither would AN.
Another attempt to legitimize autobiographical narrative has come about in the plea for redemptive endings. Understandably agents, editors and critics are tired of reading grueling personal stories that dead-end or in the words of Erin Hosier (She Writes’ resident agent) keep getting worse. ”Where’s the hope?” she writes. Great memoir across the ages has not depended upon a redemptive ending. It has depended upon the quality of the telling of the story.
For a time the phrase “creative nonfiction” was applied to personal narrative and still is as a genre for the M.F.A. But the abandonment of the goal of the creation of a work of art/literature, the sacrifice of the vision for the extraordiness of the ordinary that characterizes art for the temporal reward of a purge, has meant that creative nonfiction has itself descended to the level of autobiographical narrative. In turn there is a further descent into “expose’”– the salty opportunistic and exploitative accounts of someone else’s private life also in favor.
I just finished writing a memoir of a trip I took thirty-seven years ago (Nightfall in Verona, sample chapter here). In the epilogue I say that I could not have written it any earlier– I was too close to the story and some of the things standing in the way of/eclipsing my appreciation of the experience had not yet healed and dissipated. A degree of distance gave me the ability to paint with a full palette, to incarnate the experience in art, I pray.
To me that is the argument for waiting, perhaps writing about something to get it out or make a record, and then putting it away. My most recent piece on life with a mentally ill mother, Notes on a Yellow Rose, posted at Loquaciously Yours, is far more compassionate than my decades earlier numerous published poems about her– most of them bitter, focused on her shortcomings, sent out into the world with the attitude that I had the right to “my truth” and to hell with how she felt mirrored at her worst in the pages of my books. Another strike against most of the AN books in favor; proponents argue that personal truth no matter the cost to others is the goal. Obtaining distance from the subject frees one to focus on craft– the sharp edges of experience have been worn down and time has given experience luminosity— the light cast by the extraordinary.
When I was younger I wrote about many things as a victim, unable to see my part in them and certainly numb to anything redemptive in the people close to me whose business I put in the street for the sake of my literary ego. I contend that many people writing expose’ (trash-personal narrative) about their families, significant others, their addictions and other follies, are committing the same sin not only against others, but against art.
Part and parcel of my viewpoint is that if we all love literature, we need to protect it. We need to protect the genres that define it by protecting the traditions that gave rise to and define that genre. Granted that there is blurring of the lines between genres and the emergence of subgenres, et cetera, I believe in protecting the genre of Memoir by continuing to state that at its best it is written by someone generally viewed to have much to say, or to have been in public life, from the position of looking back a good distance from events.
Unquestionably, thanks to Oprah Winfrey and other book-loving high profile people , there is a growing market for stories of falling down and getting back up– a faux literature of intimacy. In our spiritually impoverished culture there is also a call, as Erin states in her post, for the first person nonfiction story to yield redemption and a take-away. Time will tell whether the plethora of books on the market termed “memoir” – Eat Pray Love, Pillhead, Cherry, Fury, Running with Scissors, The Glass Castle, et al, will endure the test of time to be regarded as literature.
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