In Praise Of The Memoir

It wasn’t even a memoir that got me interested in writing a memoir. It was a book that read like a memoir: White Oleander by Janet Fitch. I read White Oleander and I thought “I can do this, only my story will be true, not fiction.” I read it again a few days later and I thought “No, I most likely cannot do this. I cannot write with nearly as much eloquence and skill as Janet Fitch, but who can? Again I told myself, I can do this, to a certain extent. Yes I can.”

That was going on ten years ago. The seed was planted. I was a teenager then, sixteen, and I didn’t feel very comfortable telling people I was planning on writing a book. My wisdom told me that nobody cares if you’re planning on writing a book, that people only care when you are writing a book. I now know that even that is only partially true. Too, I had a feeling that some of the things I was going through at the time…really needed to be in the book. I decided to ride those things out, and planned to write about them later. Plus I was too busy partying and having emotional breakdowns and sleeping off all-night coke binges to do any writing.

My second wave of inspiration came from Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle. My. Favorite. Memoir. By far. And yes, it’s a memoir, it’s not fictional like the Janet Fitch book mentioned prior. It’s embarrassing, but at twenty-three years old or so, I still had very little knowledge about what a memoir was, as opposed to an autobiography, for example. A simple interpretation is that where an autobiography is an author’s life story, often presented chronologically, a memoir can focus on just one main event in a person’s life (such as divorce), or one time period (such as childhood) and does not need to be (nor is it recommended) chronological. However, many memoirs do touch on the author’s childhood even though the story is mainly about her divorce at age forty or will encompass several themes such as divorce, abuse, addiction and manic depression all in one. The Glass Castle, for example, is a story about poverty, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and, ultimately, forgiveness. Forgiveness is the main theme, see, the focus of a memoir isn’t all “poor me, poor me”. In fact, I do believe Jeannette Walls had to literally write this book in order to forgive her parents. Her parent’s are very deserving of forgiveness. Everyone is. See, it all worked out for everyone in the end. When people write about their parents, their grandparents, their siblings and nasty things come up: that’s just life, nasty things come up. The stories are not often intended to target or blame anybody. You can bet your bottom dollar the author is revealing all the nasty things he or she has done too (and then some, if they’re truly conscious). A story without any character’s wouldn’t make it to Chapter 2. And a character without any problems would read like a glass of water in front of a person lookin’ to get real drunk. Remember that before you question memoirists about their airing the family’s dirty laundry. I think for most of us (aspiring memoirists): it just comes naturally.  As naturally as an imperfect parent. Jeannette Wall’s mother was portrayed as a lazy, unrealistic dreamer who condoned physical and sexual abuse against her children and ended up a greasy homeless woman (with a mean mustache) living on the streets of New York City. When Jeanette published the book, her mother’s only comments seemed to be how absolutely proud she was of her daughter. I hope it works out that way for me. My father doesn’t have a computer. I showed him my blog for the first time the other day and he barely lifted a brow. He changed the subject in fact…I don’t think he gets it.

Today, I’m reading The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. So far, it’s a memoir that’s vastly unchronological and very poetically and intriguingly describes scenes of drug-use and sex while a young woman tries to accomplish something, anything, in her life. I ABSOLUTELY love the book at this point and I’m only a sliver deep. I have a feeling it will be right up there with White Oleander and The Glass Castle, books I consider my “model memoirs”, but of course, it’s too early to tell.

Of the twenty plus memoirs I’ve read since The Glass Castle, there are about ten I consider pure gold. I’d like to share that list with you. Perhaps you’ll enjoy the books as much as I did. In addition, please, please, please share with me the titles of your favorite memoirs! (Note: I am particularly interested in the following topics: rural America, womanhood, addiction, poverty, and sexual abuse) In fact, I very strictly do not read material that is too detached from the things I am writing about, which are the topics mentioned above. This may sound ignorant to you, it is not, this is a strategy. I am very focused on writing this memoir right now. I am eating and breathing these things. I’ll read a memoir about English high-society later. I really will.

Okay, here’s the list (sans the books that were already mentioned):

A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen
Tweek by Nic Sheff
A Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jullian Lauren
Expecting to Fly by Martha Tod Dudman
Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
I’m Down by Mishna Wolfe
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis (technically an autobio, but whatever)

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