Tuesday, May 3, 2016
The Spectrum of Memoir
There's a long spectrum of personal writing out there, and I like to think of the word "memoir" encompassing it all. A lot of what I discuss here isn't formally memoir - essays are technically not memoir, though collections like Brenda Miller's (see a list of them here) really play with that line. Technically, a memoir is a book-length project covering a particular era or theme of one's life. But one of my mindful activities is re-defining memoir.
Autobiography holds down the far left end of the spectrum of memoir-like writing. Autobiography is something book-length that famous folks write, or what used to formally be called "memoirs" - note the plural. Unless you are a former president or athlete, chances are no one is going to read your birth-to-death story. So most of the rest of us write something to the right of autobiography.
Next along comes memoir itself, a book-length project as well, but again, only an era or one theme (sexuality, drinking, etc). Anyone can write one - really! - and at any age, so long as you have some distance from the events.
Then we head into a muddy middle - personal essays, autobiographical writing, lyric essay. This middle range includes amazing writers like bell hooks, Rebecca Solnit, or Terry Tempest Williams, who write book-length projects about personal and political coming close together. Though their books often fit under "general nonfiction" or whatever the overarching subject is, these, too, are really another form of memoir.
The short form is where we rarely use the word memoir, but the fact is a lot of the individual essays (which is often how they appear) in the books noted above are also a short form of memoir. Essays like Jo Ann Beard's famous The Fourth State of Matter are a great example of powerful lyrical writing which is ostensibly more about the topic (school shooting) than the person, but absolutely come directly out of personal experience.
Then there's the fact of poetry, which is as far from "autobiography" as it gets in form, but often memoir-ish. Awhile back I mentioned being curious about poetry and memoir, and frankly, what my journey lead me to find is something I intuitively knew to be true: so much of memoir is "autobiographical" that many poetry collections can be read as a memoir - Chrystos', Sylvia Plath's, and endless more.
Notice a common thread here? Women. All of these poets and authors are female-identified. Why? Mainly because we predominate this field, but also because we tend to write about our lives. The evidence demanded to make a case in the left-brained, masculine logic world doesn't lead to memoir - which is not to say men can't write it (just ask Nick Flynn), but to say that feminine - and frankly feminist - logic is experientially-based.
Those of us who enjoy stories - men, women and more - told through lives rather than data find memoir in all its forms more approachable. Mainstream media can label memoir "soft" or "self-centered," but these are just the same labels women's writing has received for eons. Let yourself explore the entire spectrum of memoir, both reading and writing. Don't settle for straight-forward narrative, from point A to B without break. Keep reading, playing, finding.