Why bother to write a memoir?

Posted on January 28, 2011

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I’m backed up by about 3 blog posts this week, but Stephen Elliott drew my attention to a New York Times article that anyone interested in memoirs should be talking about.

Neil Genzlinger argues that there are entirely too many memoirs flooding the market right now, writing:

“…there was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

He goes on to write that there are still plenty of authors writing memoirs under the “old rules,” but they’re lost in “a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.”

Well, I basically agree. But Gunzlinger’s argument teeters dangerously close to suggesting that there are, in fact, empty moments in life. A person’s life is only as empty as they view it, and I’m of the view that every breath we take is valuable (though, admittedly, I’m guilty of failing to recognize my own at times… especially lately–more on this some other day).

A good writer takes the seemingly mundane and transforms it to something incredible–or better yet, universal in its experience. That’s the goal with my memoir in progress anyway. I have what some might consider outrageous experiences, but mostly I’m guided by the challenge of finding what’s relatable. If I write about a personal experience that’s too bizarre and only unique to me (which I believe I have a lot of given how uncomfortably I’ve chosen to live much of my adult life), then the goal changes to call attention to how insane it is, and to find either the humor or tragedy of it (depending on its context within the bigger story).

I love reading books about excessive hedonism. The Scream: The Myths, Music, and Misbehavior of Primal Scream, The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band, and more recently, Life by Keith Richards, are all packed with stories that leave readers gasping and thinking to themselves, “I could never do that!”

But these books rarely cross over to readers who aren’t fans of the personalities being written about. And that’s because they aren’t particularly easy to relate to. They’re fascinating, and the stories may even stick in our heads for a while, but it’s hard to find ourselves in works that seem so removed from our own experiences. And let’s be honest here–who doesn’t want to find at least some small portion of themselves in whatever they read about, or look at for that matter? And I know for a fact that at least 99% of you never took your live sex show on tour across the world while in a year long peyote trip.  But that doesn’t mean your life is any less interesting and not worth reading about. You just have to find the conflicts in it that that mean something to you. Most likely we’ll recall similar experiences that meant as much to us.

Now, as far as writing your story in a way that captures a “snapshot of the broader historical significance,”–I hope to Christ that such a thing isn’t on your mind as you write. Finding the historical significance is only something scholars and academics do well after the fact when everything is said and done. Basically, to some degree we’re all on autopilot. The times we live in dictate the sort of stories that come out. Maybe some of us are capable of such great self-awareness AND cultural awareness that we can realize the significant themes of our present time before anyone else, and consciously create the greatest memoir known to man. OK, sure. But to create work from both an emotional and über-intellectual place… Well, I don’t want to say it can’t be done. But every example of genius I can think of of the past couple hundreds years only works because it was created from some place of unawareness.

Some unawareness is to be human. Ultimately, we respond to art that reminds us what it means to be human. Do whatever the hell you need to do to be that, and share it with the rest of us.

Genzlinger’s article was posted at a good time for me. I’m about to start typing this hand-written scrawl I’ve been calling the first draft of my first book. This is where the real writing will take place I’m guessing. This is when I’ll know if all the hours and energy were worth it, or if I’m even ready to tell my story.

Last Christmas when I visited my family in Baltimore, my aunt asked me why I was writing a memoir. “You’re still so young,” she said. “How much life could you have lived by 27?”  My answer? Well, a lot actually. But I guess the real reason I’m writing is because I’m exactly like everyone else.

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Posted in: Writing