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.

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Comment by Nancy Chadwick-Burke on January 24, 2017 at 5:54pm

Thanks for your encouraging words, RYCJ. I am very appreciative. One thing I've found about this writing community is our passion and commitment to giving our best to the memoir. Thanks for your support with these efforts.

...and to Alonna, too. Please share. There's much strength in connecting to others with our commonalities. A welcome validation! Yes, "not" should be there and it is: "It's about me not having..." Maybe that line was confusing, not making sense? Please let me know your additional thoughts. Thanks Alonna.

Comment by RYCJ on January 24, 2017 at 5:32pm

The fact that memoirs are "now" hogging up readers speaks volumes without contest.

That said, there was once upon a time a similar discussion about books published (other than traditionally) flooding the market. Even though I thought "but I'm different," I really was a part of flooding the market with this insatiable need to write and publish. Not getting the big head, but I couldn't help but note this "gigantic publishing energy" shortly after self-publishing. Did I Do that? Like the fanfare around storytelling shortly after 'Storytella' published... and now this big energy around memoir writing (and reading) after my going 'sort of nuts' over reading in this genre. I'm not saying IT IS ME, yet can't help but feel saddened... sometimes annoyed...and a lot like 'hiding' noting these ironies.

Nancy, regardless of what your story is, WRITE IT, and please write it from your heart. Memoirs are so, so very important to our understanding each other. I'm sure I'm not speaking solely for myself, yet a favorite quote of mines remain; "You may be but one person to the world, but to one person you may be the world.' <-- That's exactly what many, many, too many memoirs have meant to me. My apologies for making this long. This happens to be a genre I'm (today) quite passionate about.

Comment by Alonna Shaw on January 24, 2017 at 11:20am

Hi, Nancy! Thanks so much for sharing this piece on the memoir-writing journey. I plan to share it with a friend. Hey, a question for you--is the word "not" in the intended place in this final line?  (It’s about me not having advanced degrees, prolific writing talent or accomplishments to match, but everything to do with the memoir itself.)

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on January 14, 2017 at 12:39pm

Thanks for the encouragement Nancy! I am going down byeways of possible illigitimacy- harder to prove one's forbears were 'diverse' shall we say?Yet the absence of proof is itself a kind of proof, and sheds light on so much kept dark!

Comment by Nancy Chadwick-Burke on January 14, 2017 at 12:23pm

Never a problem, Philippa Anne. Sometimes when writing the diverting happens for a reason. We can discover new meanings and the reflection in the diversion becomes valuable.

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on January 14, 2017 at 2:02am

It's turning into a discovery of what I must have known but failed to recognise! Sifting the essential from the diverting will be the problem.

Comment by Nancy Chadwick-Burke on January 13, 2017 at 1:11pm

Thanks, Philippa Anne and congrats; you are beginning an exciting journey!

Comment by Philippa Anne Rees on January 12, 2017 at 12:24pm

A valuable warning for one about to begin!

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