Recently during a Google search, “The Problem with Memoirs” popped up. Neil Genzliner wrote it for The New York Times. As a memoir writer, I never considered memoirs having a problem, but apparently Genzliner did. “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up,” he said. This writer was successful in delivering his goal; he got my attention. I wondered why he was so miffed. He explains as he continues declaring our current age of oversharing (his observation in 2011) when his Amazon search produced about “40,000 hits, or 60,000 or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.” Today, my Amazon search for “memoirs” netted 415,000 hits. He claims the genre has become bloated, “disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight,” to name a few qualifiers. I can’t argue with him there as I’ll add that biographies or autobiographies appear to have joined the popularity as de rigueur of nonfiction writing – the memoir.
I became concerned about the inner workings of my own memoir after I considered his claims. No, my memoir is not part of his umbrella engorgement he claims about the genre. I do not write of any physical or mental affliction had by me or a loved one. Yet I question if my memoir even has a place in the group precisely because it’s lack of membership in his observed qualifying tribe. Would it even be a memoir if it is other than what he claims characteristic of the genre?
Genzlinger comes to a conclusion after deciding that 3 of the 4 new memoirs he read did not need to be written and as a result, he proposes a few guidelines for would-be memoirists: 1) that you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir, 2) that no one wants to relive your misery where the sole purpose of the author is to generate sympathy, 3) that imitation runs rampant; “there can’t be just one book by a bulimic . . .” and 4) make yourself the least important character. “That’s what makes a good memoir – it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, but a shared discovery . . . if you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” Aha. There it is number 4. Memoirs are not about your story. They are about what you did with your story, the discoveries that made your story what it is. My memoir is not about where I grew up, my parent’s divorce, or that I had lived in many houses, the autobiographical. It’s how my experiences growing up shaped me, the impact of my parent’s divorce, and the meaning of the connections I made to home despite living in many houses in different places – and all my discoveries because of these.
I reread Magic of Memoir, (MoM) not only the essays in search of inspiration for my memoir writing, but also to learn more about the contributors. I found them to be from mid-age to 84 with some who are retired. Many are multi-published writers and authors of poetry, creative writing, and anthologies to match their prolific backgrounds. Some are educators. There is even a former pastor and a couple of psychotherapists, a screenwriter, a few life coaches and public speakers. Many have advanced degrees. The level of talent and professionalism matches their accomplishments. Also a contributor, I felt I had not a thing in common with what I considered an intimidating lot. But after matching their biographies with their essays, I realized I had more in common with them than first considered. It’s about me not having advanced degrees, prolific writing talent or accomplishments to match, but everything to do with the memoir itself.
Part II of “The Problem with Memoirs” will continue in a follow-up post where I will share what I learned about being a MoM contributor, my fellow contributors and how studying MoM contributed to my deeper understanding of the genre.