Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Memoirs and Montaigne....

by Miriam

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?


  1. Behler Blog recently had an interesting and, I thought, informative blog on what makes memoirs good. Hope this works as a link.


  2. Given the fact I am currently querying for a humorous coming of age memoir I found this post especially interesting. On the plus side I praise my single mother and blame myself and my lecherous boss at a dusty Texas Feedstore for the bumps in my journey to responsible adulthood.

    Like fiction I like memoirs with characters I feel engaged with., Good or bad I want to become invested in their journey. I hope I accomplished that in the writing of mine.

  3. I haven't read a lot of memoirs, but "The Pursuit of Happyness" by Chris Gardner immediately popped into my head when I read this post.

    What I appreciated about this book was that Gardner didn't paint himself as a victim or hero - there were times I sympathized with him and other times I thought he was a jerk. It made him real, which made his story not just a stereotypical "so sad, hard life, rise above" narrative.

    I like perspective and analysis, not just "this is what happened. First A, then B..."

  4. One of my favorite books (completely out of my usual genre) is A Painted House by John Grisham. While it's not a real memoir, it gets all of the benefit of one by taking place in a real time and place in the author's childhood, just with some fictional events. There is truly no better way to capture a time and place than to live in it. But this book has a lot to teach us about how you make a memoir marketable and readable, because real non-fiction memoirs should read just like it.

    The biggest problem I see in many memoirs (even some that do get published) is the author seems to be unable to step back from the work and view it outside of their involvement in it. I am not a huge memoir reader, though I do converse and critique with several memoir authors. As a mostly novel writer and reader, I have had many of them say it was a great help to hear my feedback. I think memoirists tend to stay in their own circles, but allowing someone to read it as if it were fiction can work out the kinks in the flow of the story and the development of characters. Yes, you know them as real people, but to the reader they are no different from any character, and your story is no different from any novel. I've found the place usually works out just fine.

    So I recommend that memoir writers seek out someone who doesn't usually read memoirs to look over the work and offer a different perspective. It can be very eye-opening.


  5. What's that famous quote? Wise men talk when they have something to say, fools because they have to say something....something like that.

  6. I've pretty much stopped reading memoirs because so few seem to have thought about who their audience is. I am a reader, not a therapist. I think it's great when someone can work out inner demons by writing about it, I just don't want to read it unless the author can think of a reason that I should.

    One of the best memoir's I've read was West with the Night by Beryl Markham, who was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic from East to West. As a white woman growing up among men in Kenya, she could have pandered to all the stereotypes of the time. But she tried to convey something new about how women can take control of their lives without regret, about how people can have their own cultures while deeply valuing the cultures of their friends. But perhaps what is most expertly done in this memoir is that she leaves out so much. Those men she talks about, were they her lovers? What about the women? Rather than tell all, she leaves us readers with our dignity.

  7. Lori Ettlinger Gross21/10/10 2:27 PM

    A memoir's success is born from a natural duality: the need for the author to relive the journey, and perhaps understand more from it as a gathered perspective, while the reader takes the journey afresh, and finds inspiration in the flesh of it. I'm not at all sure why else we would find another's life compelling, except to discover ourselves in the stories we don't yet know, or the emotions we've yet to explore. In my opinion, Joan Didion's, The Year of Magical Thinking is a wonderful example. She takes us along a woeful spectrum of time, and still keeps our interest despite our already knowing its sad outcome. Why? I think it's because Ms. Didion doesn't put too fine a point on analysis and drops her emotions on the page in the same way a traveler, finally arriving home, gladly deposits heavy baggage at the doorstep. She seems disinclined to unpack for the reader, instead of tidily putting the contents where they belong.