As I have been wrestling with ideas for a memoir (earlier memoir musings here), I found it of particular interest when Cup of Chicha took exception to a piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer titled “Confessions of a writer who didn’t pen a memoir.” She wrote:
I have no problems with D. Parvas’s disdain for “wasted youth” memoirs (Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid, Rolling Away: My Agony With Ecstasy), but I’ve a number of problems with Parvas’s plot-based prescription for the genre…
As one who reads for thoughts and language and rarely plot, I’d like to suggest that the boring and insignificant among us can sometimes write worthy memoirs, too….
Although I don’t think that anyone is boring or insignificant, I basically agree with her in that it’s not necessarily what we’ve done that is of value. Vivian Gornick may have said it best in the foreword to “Living to Tell the Tale,” by Jane Taylor McDonnell:
“…what happened to the memoirist is not what matters; it matters only what the memoirist makes of what happened.”
The rant against memoir is an old one. In October of 1997, Vanity Fair ran James Wolcott’s article titled “Me, Myself and I,” wherein he denounced the “me-first sensibility” of memoirists, calling them “navel gazers.” Of course myopically self-involved and/or insufferably solemn writers who confuse honesty with confession do exist, and I won’t be reading their words. But as Lee Gutkind points out in his own memoir Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather
there’s also an explosion of altogether brilliant nonfiction prose being written today by people who can reveal their feelings or the feelings of the people about whom they are writing while communicating compelling information and striking some sort of universal chord.
Universality seems to be the key. So what compelling information have I to share, and what universal truths can I tap? I must discover the answers to those questions before I can craft a reader-worthy tale. The memoirist’s job is “to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape the experience, transform an event, deliver wisdom” (Vivian Gornick) “such that the minutia of living becomes the meaning of life” (Walt Harrington, The Everlasting Stream).