I’ve been beset and besieged by memoir queries of late. An inordinate number of them seem to focus on a bad/negligent/crazy mother and the lasting scars she inflicted on her child—in this case, the memoirist. As the parent of a precociously knowing five-year-old, I feel a level of sympathy for these maligned moms (we mothers don’t have a good track record when it comes to literary depictions of us by our offspring). I feel less sympathy for their whiny kids who not only blame everything that’s wrong with their lives on the poor women who spawned them but, worse yet, do it in ways that are both artless and, frankly, tedious.
Which got me thinking about why so many people write memoirs and why so few of them end up successfully published. Simply being the victim of physical or psychological abuse, real or perceived, doesn’t do it. Well crafted prose that lovingly explores the contents of one’s navel doesn’t either. Exotic experiences involving travel or bizarre encounters don’t guarantee a good read. Universal themes are a good starting point but don’t always add up to anything more than intellectual meanderings that either veer toward the Hallmark Card or obscure German philosopher ends of the literary spectrum. I’ve always felt that, like good fiction, a successful memoir is powerful, moving, charming, well-written, well-paced, and relatable in that been-there-felt-that kind of way, with a minimum of tiresome self-absorption (despite the fact that the subject is the self).
And then I came across this piece about the delightful Michel de Montaigne whose solipsism is, well, the whole point of his essays, and whose interest in the minutiae of everyday life is boundless. So, how come he still engages us across the centuries? And how come so many authors with more interesting life stories and horrible mommies fail so often to do so?
What makes you pick up a memoir? And what personal narratives are among your favorites?