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Memoirs: Untruths and Regrets

24 August, 2010

I am not a fan of memoirs, especially the ‘misery’ variety. However, I enjoyed reading two articles that discuss the current state of this genre:  Craig Fehrman’s review of Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A history and Alex Kuczynski’s ‘Not a Memoir’, his review of Emily Fox Gordon’s memoirs and essays.

Memoir mania

Yagoda provides the astounding figure that between 2004 and 2008, memoir sales increased by 400 per cent. This figure suggests that fiction writers desperate to be published could do better by jotting down their life-story. The memoir boom may be the reason I see so many life-story workshops, seminars, and retreats being advertised.

Memoirs are also coming into print faster because of technological advances in publishing. When newsworthy or gossip-worthy events happen, interested readers can get the associated tell-all report while the event is still hot in the public mind. According to Yagoda, the period from writing the material to having the finished book on bookshop shelves can be as short as 4 months.

Memoir and facts

Yagoda describes a memoir as writing based on the author, publisher and readers sharing the understanding that the memoir is ‘a factual account of the author’s life’. Readers are justifiably upset when they discover the memoirist has made up material because they believed they were getting a real account, not fiction. According to Yagoda, there are degrees of inaccuracy; readers find a memoir more problematic if not only the details but the gist of the story is false. The most offending memoir would have to be the one where the author deliberately and completely fabricates an account of his or her past.

Even with authentic memoirs, we as readers must accept that by their very nature, life-stories will always be inaccurate. Gore Vidal wrote in his own memoir that a memoirist’s goal is to write about  ‘how one remembers one’s own life’, without the ‘research, dates, facts double-checked’ expected in autobiographies. Memoirists deal with facts but focus on their perceptions and memories.

Consider how many times you have related a crystal clear incident from your past, only to have a relative or school friend inform you  that it did not happen that way at all. More memoirists are reminding their readers that their work is not and never will be 100% true. They do so by prefacing their memoir with an explanation of the choices they made to tell their life story. They may acknowledge that their story’s framework is true but the details are not. Past conversations have been reconstructed, names have been changed, material may have been combined or omitted to highlight the most important events.

Memoir regrets

Less often discussed in memoir-writing is the regret that a memoirist may later experience after publishing their memoir.

Some writers publish too soon, creating their memoir while the events they have been through are still raw, unprocessed.

Some are unprepared for the fallout when family and friends read how their lives, their failings and foibles, have been interpreted and made public.

Another regret relates to the confines this genre puts on one’s life story. Although it sounds as if a memoir is easier to write, Kuczynski explains that because the memoir does not cover an entire life ‘the writer is forced to follow only one story line . . . . ‘  The modern memoir adds another restriction, that the story line provide a ‘common theme of redemption’, showing the writer struggling with and overcoming a problem: ‘. . . Me and drugs, me and my dysfunctional family, me and my depression, me and my eating disorder.’

Emily Fox Gordon, whose first memoir was about her years in therapy, comments that by requiring such a reduced story of one’s life, the memoir is a dishonest form.  In writing her memoirs, she says that she sinned against her ‘true story . . . the one I can never tell and never know.’ Virginia Wolf identifies this inability to show everything about our lives to others when she described people as each having ‘his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart’, so much so that even friends can ‘only read the title’.

Another memoir convention is that the life-story is usually told in chronological order. American poet Ezra Pound questioned this aspect of writing about the past: ‘It may be convenient to lay it [the past] out anesthetized on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.’ Perhaps future memoirists will find new ways to tell their life-stories?

‘One must always maintain one’s connection to the past and yet ceaselessly pull away from it.’ This quote from French poet Gaston Bachelard, although not about life-stories,  suggests the need to capture memories but not let them overwhelm the other need, to tell a good story. Only by remaining somewhat separate from their past can memoirists achieve the necessary distance to select, combine and develop a story to captivate readers.

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