Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Incident-Based Memoir Versus Thematic Memoir

Typically, there are two reasons/narrative threads under writing any given memoir. The first, and most common, is to write a memoir about a particular incident. Half a Life by Darin Strauss is about the author accidentally striking and killing a girl on a bike with his car when he was eighteen, and the impact that had on his life and community. History of a Suicide by Jill Bialosky is about the author's sister's death from suicide and the author coming to terms with it. There are a million examples of these kinds of specific memoirs. They can be quite lovely and focused, giving a central event to focus attention on, and explain further experiences from.

However, when we read only these memoirs we get the idea that only folks who have had "big things" happen to them in their lives (read also: tragedies) can write memoir. It's good to notice even most memoirs written based in an incident also thread through the themes of someone's life, like Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong, in which her eventual diagnosis of epilepsy clarifies some of her difficult journey with spirituality, but in fact isn't the central focus of the story.

And, there are memoirs which truly just focus on a thread, a theme, or a connection throughout someone's life, rather than single incidents, and certainly not always around trauma. In our story-obsessed culture, these memoirs tend to get less media, but they are insightful and powerful nonetheless.

For instance, there's An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. In some ways, this is a quiet memoir, less focused on specific big-bang personal moments and more on the ongoing magic of everyday experience. Her language is exquisite, and her reverence for childhood experience is both specific and universal at the same time. She doesn't have to have had any particular experience in order to write this - just to be totally awake and alive and aware:
What does it feel like to be alive?Living, you stand under a waterfall. You leave the sleeping shore deliberately; you shed your dusty clothes, pick your barefoot way over the high, slippery rocks, hold your breath, choose your footing, and step into the waterfall. The hard water pelts your skull, bangs in bits on your shoulders and arms. The strong water dashes down beside you and you feel it along your calves and thighs rising roughly backup, up to the roiling surface, full of bubbles that slide up your skin or break on you at full speed. Can you breathe here? Here where the force is the greatest and only the strength of your neck holds the river out of your face. Yes, you can breathe even here. You could learn to live like this. And you can, if you concentrate, even look out at the peaceful far bank where you try to raise your arms. What a racket in your ears, what a scattershot pummeling!It is time pounding at you, time. Knowing you are alive is watching on every side your generation's short time falling away as fast as rivers drop through air, and feeling it hit.

And yet, even when Strauss and Bialosky write about specific incidents, things we may or may not be able to relate to, it is what they can say now, from adulthood, with insight - incredible normal and yet brilliant perspectives - that carry their books. Strauss:
Things don't go away. They become you. There is no end, as T.S. Eliot somewhere says, but addition: the trailing consequence of further days and hours. No freedom from the past, or from the future. 
But we keep making our way, as we have to. We're all pretty much able to deal even with the worst that life can fire at us, if we simply admit that it is very difficult. I think that's the whole of the answer. We make our way, and effort and time give us cushion and dignity. And as we age, we're riding higher in the saddle, seeing more terrain.

If there is a particular time that defined the clear yet inaudible sound of a life beginning to unwind, this was it, the moment before her life began to spin off course, like the point in a novel at which everything that has come before turns and past events reveal their significance. Yet we didn't see it.
See what is in common in all these passages? Sensory experiences, direct and yet relating to larger life lessons. Being anchored in personal experience with an eye out for what is universal. Metaphor and larger meaning built into specific experience describing.

And, in fact, Armstrong gives such a great description of how religion works in Spiral Staircase that I think it applies to life and memoir. Lord knows, even if we have major events/traumas/incidents in our lives, insight does not just arrive on the heels of such experiences. We have to apply life, consider it, contemplate it. And memoir can be a big key in this process:

Religion is not about accepting twenty impossible propositions before breakfast, but about doing things that change you. It is a moral aesthetic, an ethical alchemy. If you behave in a certain way, you will be transformed. The myths and laws of religion are not true because they they conform to some metaphysical, scientific or historical reality but because they are life enhancing. They tell you how human nature functions, but you will not discover their truth unless you apply these myths and doctrines to your own life and put them into practice. 


  1. A fantastic piece, Miriam, albeit I'm a little late reading this! I'm a memoir writer and doing an essay on the "quiet" memoir," the thematic one. My memoir, Under the Birch Tree is quiet and thematic and for these reasons I find it is given less credit and exposure with lukewarm reviews mixed in, than the tragic, incident-driven. Your perspective on the two kinds of memoir is spot on!

  2. Glad to hear it was so useful, Nancy. I will be checking out your memoir.