Why Is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing?


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Memoir by Meni's Style and A S O !

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Today’s guest post is by Shirley Hershey Showalter, who has been blogging about memoir for four years and is writing a memoir about growing up on a Mennonite farm in the 1950s–60s.


Depending on whom you ask—or what lens you apply—memoir is either a boomlet that burst or a timeless form just now coming into its own. The first lens, the literary lens, gets a fair amount of press attention. The second lens, a more hidden one, may need a little more magnification. While I believe memoir is just coming into its own, let’s look at a few expert views. 

The Literary Lens: A Genre Comes Into Its Own

Some call our time “the age of memoir,” most notably William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1998).

Thomas Larson, in The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing and Personal Narrative (2007), makes memoir sound like Davy Crockett when he says it burst forth “sui generis from the castle of autobiography and the wilds of the personal essay.”

Ben Yagoda believes the years 1990–2010 marked the memoir boom period. In Memoir: A History (2009) he writes:

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. book sales, total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. Also, memoirs in Britain occupied seven out of ten bestselling nonfiction hardcovers in both 2007 and 2008.

Other experts, such as Marion Roach Smith and Dinty W. Moore, focus on the longevity and ubiquity of the tradition. Memoir by any other name would smell as sweet and has always been present regardless of name or form. Moore gives credit to Montaigne for floating the revolutionary notion “that one man’s life could represent all men.” This idea came to fruition in the late twentieth century when, says Moore, “authors proved that a memoir could be every bit as compelling and artful as a novel.”

Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life (2011), says, “People have written about themselves since people could write.” She appreciates especially how memoir opened up previously unknown worlds. She writes:

We would not know about the lives of the disenfranchised. That awareness alone is worth real study. I am reading one right now from 1849, written by a slave. It’s fascinating as it is horrible in its graphic description of the daily life of a young woman who was a third-generation slave. We would not have this data were it not for this genre.

All experts agree that something new happened to the genre in the 1990s. Many observers have linked the memoir boom to the publication of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1999and its trip to the bestseller list, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. With a subtitle like A Memoir, and with an author who was a retired public school teacher, this book—along with the earlier and more sensational tale, A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer in 1995—sent out a subliminal call to others, especially those who had endured difficult childhoods, to write their own stories.

The mixed response to memoir’s rise was predictable. The literary/publishing world, which after all is a pretty small town, praised some of the writing, but questioned much more, and especially decried the outpouring of victim stories. In Britain, wags gave the movement a name: the misery memoir or misery lit.

Of course, parody was sure to follow, as it did with My Godawful Life by Michael Kelly using the pen name of Sunny McCreary.

As writers and publishers sniffed a cresting market, pressure increased to exaggerate or even fabricate stories of misery. Enter James Frey, Margaret B. Jones (aka Margaret Selzer), Herman Rosenblatt, and Greg Mortenson. These were only the most egregious cases that led to accusations of fraud, and soon we entered the thorny eternal dialogue: What is truth?

Post-Memoir Boom Theorizing

The field of creative nonfiction, from the perspective of  writing programs and literary magazines, has erupted in a frenzy of dialogue following the publication of two books by John D’Agata, About a Mountain (2010) and The Lifespan of a Fact (2012). D’Agata wants to claim a space for the production of art between what we now call the novel, journalism, memoir, and essay. His resistance to fact checking and fact checkers is legendary. Want a ringside seat to an academic tempest? Check out this essay, and especially the comments, in the online magazine Brevity: D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out.

David Shields, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), has written the book that tries to explain the enormous craving for the real in the twenty-first century. He too questions the ideas of facts and celebrates the artist’s freedom to borrow from the past in order to create the new. He doesn’t just examine memoir and other written forms; he connects them to scores of other forms of reality, on TV and the Internet. Among them are hip-hop, sampling, and YouTube. In an age of superficiality and contrivance in places previously thought to be sacrosanct or at least dependable bastions of truth—such as religion, politics, and journalism—we need new forms that narrow the gap between fiction and nonfiction and liberate the artists among us.

A host of old genres are breaking apart, and new ones—usually mash-ups, smash-ups, collages, and pastiches—arise. “All art is theft,” says Shields, and he heralds the arrival of works that attempt to strip away the artificiality of the current political and cultural environment by making that very artifice visible.

The Popular Lens: A Quiet Revolution

While intellectuals and artists are arguing, less raucous conversation has been going on. It reflects much of the same cultural milieu. It, too, manifests a hunger for reality, but it is more personal, interested less in genres and their names and more in stories themselves and the meanings behind them. The combination of a democratizing force like the Internet and a population of more than 78 million people over the age of 50 in the U.S. means that anyone contemplating the meaning of life can now readily locate the means of production to share his or her wisdom. Indie publishing has accelerated the numbers of new memoir authors.

Blogging has been a vehicle for many to explore how their own stories connect with others they could not have known before. Blogger and memoir writer Jerry Waxler says, “Vast numbers of people are aspiring to become storytellers, turning this into a boom time for the story arts.” Waxler teaches workshops where, he says, “people come with such longing to try to turn life into story.” He sees the same interest online where people come to improve their writing skills. As he has been drawn more and more into writing and teaching, Waxler is increasingly curious about what motivates these new writers.

Linda Joy Myers began the National Association of Memoir Writers after sensing a similar need. She says there is a huge grassroots movement for people to write their stories. (An interesting commonality: Both Waxler and Myers are experienced therapists.) Myers describes the memoir spectrum: “From healing the past, to leaving a legacy, from darkly investigative stories that plumb the psyche, to humorous snippets that revive faith in the human condition.” 

The Old Truth About an Examined Life

As with many revolutions, whether at the elite or popular level, the new is most powerful when it connects with ancient truths. Marion Roach Smith sums up what may be the best reward of the age of memoir and even an explanation for its rise: “So, yes, there are more memoirists, probably because it is simply so much easier and so much more acceptable to be one. Then there is the fact that it feels good. Why? That old truth about an examined life. It settles the mind. It makes us sure of things. Nothing quite like it.”

Do these explanations make sense to you? What do you think about the emergence of memoir writers, memoir theorists, and memoir coaches?

 

  • Lynne Spreen

    Shirley, this is interesting. I kept hearing my therapist’s voice in the back of my mind as I read. He said the past and future are fantasies; only the present is real. But the past really happened, I said. How can you call it a fantasy? He answered: You remember what you focus on, and much of the rest drops away. Some is even forgotten. I love the genre, but it’s an inkblot as to what is remembered.

  • Benjamin

    Maybe the surge in reality tv also plays a part? I think it would be interesting to see what kinds of memoir are selling well and how many during the last 20 years. Are they sensationalistic? Do they dwell on darker issues of murder, rape, drug use, racism? My naive guess is that introspective / lyrical memoirs don’t sell nearly as well as the others, and that even those that push the genre or mix genres don’t, either.

  • Anita Simpson

    In a more negative vein, I’ve read that some “experts” believe social media has led to an increase in narcissism and a concomitant explosion in people writing about their own lives, whether is blogs, memoir or other forms. Any comments?

  • http://twitter.com/mehmetarat2000 Mehmet Arat

    I think people are interested in other personal stories, but generally not as mentioned in news or told in fiction. They want to witness real lives with subjective, emotional details, inner thoughts and feelings. A fiction needs to convince the reader for its reality, but a memoir has the advantage of coming from reality. This can be one of the reasons of the boom I think. Historical fiction can also be considered to be fed from the same reason, readers can trust the reality of the characters of an author in a work based on history more easily.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    “You remember what you focus on” — powerful idea. And holds true to my experience.

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman

    I’ve started watching Dr. Who (the 2000s reboot), and there’s an episode based on the premise that, in the future, a big segment of the population is forced into indentured servitude in the form of reality TV show competitions — to entertain everyone else. (Chills.)

  • http://janefriedman.com/ Jane Friedman
  • http://twitter.com/Porter_Anderson Porter Anderson

    Hi, Shirley, and thanks for your piece.

    I think it may be a lot simpler than some folks like to concede. It’s digital meets aging.

    (1) The Internet has “inspired” a great many people to believe not only that they can write but that they should write. The digital dynamic makes it possible for everybody to publish something, unprecedented in history. We can only be grateful that the Internet didn’t “inspire” them to believe they could fly planes and do brain surgery. Instead, they’re at the National Kitchen Table, writing.

    (2) The population is aging. Aging people turn to memoir, which makes perfect sense.

    None of this negates a “quiet revolution” interpretation, by the way. The nuances of a grassroots on fire with the zeal to connect their stories to others’, to examine the life lived, that hunger for reality proposed by some, the standard needs to share and warn and celebrate and explicate. This is therapy. All good, we should have nothing but respect for this. These are the emotional and contextual elements of the trend. The ins and outs of current and past views you cite are all spot-on, good job.

    But the “why now?” reason for a surge lies in the meeting of one old factor (a major portion of a population aging) and one new (digital capability). And thus we see the rise of an industry of “services” and instruction to assist. We are a world of seminars.

    Age and the digital dynamic. That’s why so much memoir.

    And those are my (exactly) two cents. :)

    Cheers,
    -p.
    @Porter_Anderson

  • KathyPooler

    Thank you for featuring Shirley in this guest post, Jane.

    Excellent, thought-provoking and well-researched discussion, Shirley. Thank you.
    Memoir touches upon the human condition and the best memoirs are the ones that bring the reader into the author’s real-life recollections and reflections in an authentic way. If crafted well ( like a novel), the reader is able to find their own story in the story they are reading. Connections are made and both the author and the reader can be transformed and healed in the process. There is power in sharing our stories.
    Of course, the biggest challenge in memoir writing relates to truthtelling-what is your truth and are you willing to stand in it despite differing perceptions or repercussions? Between fabrication of acts and dilution of the truth, every memoir writer has to find the right balance to be able to tell the story only they can tell in as honest and authentic a way as possible. Mary Karr once said ” capture the essence of the truth to the best of your ability” (paraphrase). Suffice it to say, solid commitment to the truth is essential.
    There is some interesting dialogue occurring on my blog this week with Laura Dennis’ guest post on Trauma in Memoir. She poses the question- Why do we want to read about another person’s trauma or misfortune? Maybe to realize we are not alone, maybe to see how others in similar circumstances survive and thrive? The comment about the popularity of reality TV is a good example of the hunger for stories. Jerry Waxler and Linda Joy Myers, my valued memoir mentors, sum it up for me: people long “to turn life into story” and “revive faith in the human condition.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/KASemenova Karen Adams

    I think this is probably true, Anita, but I tend more to agree with Porter. My training is in history, and I’m also an amateur genealogist, and given the sources I’ve seen, I do believe that people, esp. as they reach later middle age, get the itch to record their lives for posterity. Today, these things don’t live only in archives — whether public or university or family — because it’s just so easy to publish, so easy to find classes and books about memoir. I also edit memoir, btw. And I get what I think of as “both” kinds. Writers who are aiming for (what used to be called) publishable, that is, to reach a wide(r) audience, and those who really are engaged primarily in an exercise for themselves. As an aside, my dad died last month, and his elder sister two years ago, and one of the first things my aunt, his only remaining sibling, said to me was that she was writing something for me, stories about their childhood and parents. She clearly has a sense that she’s the last one, and if she doesn’t get this stuff down, it will be lost. I do think that’s a pretty universal impulse.

  • http://twitter.com/ficwriter Darrelyn Saloom

    I think it’s simple: memorist connect to readers on a deeper emotional level because the story is true. Readers want to know how the man continued to care for the woman who shattered his heart. Or the wife who wanted to die when her husband abandoned her. We can relate to disappointment, broken dreams, and success. And we are curious to see how others maneuver in this harsh, beautiful world.

  • http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog jerrywaxler

    Your therapist is right when your life is stored only in memory. Too bad he didn’t know about the therapy of memoir writing. Writing the story allows you to consciously bring attention and craft. After you’ve written a memoir, your past changes from an inkblot to a story. Stories have been used since the dawn of civilization to make sense of the kaleidoscope of events.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Hi, Benjamin. I know you are right about the connection between reality tv and memoir, but I can’t explain it. I don’t care for reality tv at all (never really tried it, to tell the truth) but I love memoir.

    It’s difficult to get hard sales numbers, especially on subgenres. I am encouraged, however, that Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, a lyric memoir, has done so well, both here and in Canada.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Thanks, Lynne. I agree. But I’ve also noticed something else. Historians like to talk about a “usable past,” but as a memoir writer, I see new connections emerge from out of the fog, aided by photos, conversations, and reflection. Then new stories emerge and the excitement of discovery fuels the writing.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Yes, the need is simple, and deep. But the story has to feed the need. You and Deirdre Gogarty did that so well in your memoir My Call to the Ring: A Memoir of a Girl Who Yearns to Box. Thanks for taking time to comment as you tour with your new book!

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Kathy, thanks so much for this gracious response and for bringing in the role of healing. Whenever someone learns and grows in the midst of struggle, we can do the same as readers. Better than self-help. :-)

    I want to go check out your blog. The subject interests me. I have a number of friends who are interested in the role of memoir in trauma recovery.

  • http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog jerrywaxler

    The word narcissism is so overused and muddy, Break it down into its parts. I think people who are not curious about the story of themselves tend to appear shallow and disconnected. Memoir writers might be OVERLY-curious about their own story. I like people like that, especially when they are also interested in other people. Narcissism is a pathology of ONLY being interested in yourself. I know some people who were raised by narcissistic parents and I encourage them to write a memoir about that experience to help the rest of us understand what that felt like. I’ve read a couple of good examples, Tony Cohan, “Native State,” and Martha Bloland Erikson “In the Shadow of Fame.”

    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Thanks, Porter. As usual, you hone right in on two really significant cultural shifts with great explanatory power. The world should be glad that we geezers are at the kitchen table instead of the cockpit. Ha!

    Doing this post made me respect your “Ether” contributions all the more. You are simply amazing in your ability to read, digest, connect, and “share and warn and celebrate and explicate.”

    Hmm. Ether as memoir?

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Yes, Mehmet. This is why truth does count in memoir. We can choose frame and perspective, but we owe the reader an allegiance to accuracy.

    If “one man’s life is to represent the whole,” that representation should tell the truth as much as possible. You can see I’m old-fashioned in this regard.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    I’ve read some memoirs that come across as narcissistic to me. I don’t usually finish them, or, if I do, I don’t review them favorably. More often, I’m impressed by courage and forgiveness, both of self and others. Those are the memoirs I seek out.

    The same with blogs. One of the most interesting aspects of social media to me is that it teaches listening and generosity over flaunting and selling.

    I think a lot of the impulse to tell the story of a life has to do with legacy, as Karen points out here. Mortality is a strong force, and a cleansing force, I think.

  • http://twitter.com/meganwillome Megan Willome

    There are memoir coaches? Lord have mercy!

    I love reading memoirs. A lot of my short, published pieces are memoir-y. But I can’t get my head around writing a whole memoir. It feels a tad icky.

  • Linda Joy Myers

    One of the themes I see explored in my work with memoirists is identity–asking who am I, where did I come from, and what is the meaning of all this. What have I done with what I was given and what am I leaving behind. As humans, I think we have a deep need to translate and make meaning of this journey called like, and now memoir invites anyone, everyone–whether some approve or not–to put these things into words.
    On the subject of memory, I read recently more of what Joseph LeDoux has to say about memory. He’s the author of The Emotional Brain–and in his new writing he says that we remake each memory and put it back into the brain each time it comes up. It has to do with complex hormones and proteins, but it’s an interesting note on the subject of the subjectivity of memory. Thank you Jane and Shirley, and everyone for illuminating the subject of memoir more and offering a forum for discussion.

  • @memoirguru

    One of the themes I see explored in my work with memoirists is identity–asking who am I, where did I come from, and what is the meaning of all this. What have I done with what I was given and what am I leaving behind. As humans, I think we have a deep need to translate and make meaning of this journey called like, and now memoir invites anyone, everyone–whether some approve or not–to put these things into words.
    On the subject of memory, I read recently more of what Joseph LeDoux has to say about memory. He’s the author of The Emotional Brain–and in his new writing he says that we remake each memory and put it back into the brain each time it comes up. It has to do with complex hormones and proteins, but it’s an interesting note on the subject of the subjectivity of memory. Thank you Jane and Shirley, and everyone for illuminating the subject of memoir more and offering a forum for discussion.

  • http://twitter.com/GutsyLiving Sonia Marsh

    I’m curious if the recession, and perhaps the fact that more people are staying home rather than spending money on “stuff” or travel, has resulted in a surge of people journaling, reflecting on their life, and perhaps even hoping to make a living off their writing. I’ve spoken to several who were either forced to take an early retirement, or who wish to supplement their income, and who decided to write their memoir. With a surge in indie publishing, it’s easier than ever to publish your memoir, and since most of us believe we have a story to share, this could explain the surge.

  • http://www.sowingseedsofgrace.wordpress.com/ Sherrey Meyer

    Jane, first I want to thank you for hosting Shirley. Shirley’s wealth of knowledge on memoir and writing in general should be shared as often as possible.

    Shirley, reading your words finally produced in me an understanding of the “why” behind my writing. Simply put, I’m seeking. Seeking answers to many unanswered questions in childhood, perceived inadequacies because of my environment growing up, a child who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak up against her abuses for fear of more hurt or other reprisals. So, if others my age (and yes, I’m a boomer) experienced similar or perhaps worse experiences than mine, perhaps we are a generation of seekers. And we each must seek in our own way.

    Because I love words, whether reading them or writing them, I choose to seek by writing. And as Kathy Pooler mentioned in her comment, I am finding healing in the process. For me this is a part of my story. That even with past hurts and internal scars that are difficult to heal I may finally resolve my past and give others hope of doing the same.

    Thanks for the “counseling” session! It was a bonus in my day.

  • Pingback: Why Is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing? | Jane Friedman | personal storytelling | Scoop.it()

  • Benjamin

    But here’s the thing–sure, it’s lyric, but it’s also about something(s) specifically traumatic, and in a lot of ways, sensationalistic. Maybe not written that way. What I’m saying is a person writing about a cabin in the woods won’t be making it into any book clubs or bestseller lists unless something grave, something newsworthy and biting occurs. This is not a slam at all on Cheryl’s excellent book, either, maybe just the reality of the marketplace (especially in this economy). Personally, I keep wondering how I can jazz up my Mennonite family in Oklahoma, but no one has any sordid stories, except for an accidental shivaree shooting.

  • Benjamin

    But here’s the thing–sure, it’s lyric, but it’s also about something(s) specifically traumatic, and in a lot of ways, sensationalistic. Maybe not written that way. What I’m saying is a person writing about a cabin in the woods won’t be making it into any book clubs or bestseller lists unless something grave, something newsworthy and biting occurs. This is not a slam at all on Cheryl’s excellent book, either, maybe just the reality of the marketplace (especially in this economy). Personally, I keep wondering how I can jazz up my Mennonite family in Oklahoma, but no one has any sordid stories, except for an accidental shivaree shooting.

  • Benjamin

    But here’s the thing–sure, it’s lyric, but it’s also about something(s)
    specifically traumatic, and in a lot of ways, sensationalistic. Maybe
    not written that way. What I’m saying is a person writing about a cabin
    in the woods won’t be making it into any book clubs or bestseller lists
    unless something grave, something newsworthy and biting occurs. This is
    not a slam at all on Cheryl’s excellent book, either, maybe just the
    reality of the marketplace (especially in this economy). Personally, I
    keep wondering how I can jazz up my Mennonite family in Oklahoma, but no
    one has any sordid stories, except for an accidental shivaree shooting.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Sherrey, so glad the session was helpful in clarifying your purpose. That’s a great compliment to any writer, as you know.

    And well-written stories do have the power to heal, both the writer and the reader. Don’t let being a Boomer discourage you. My guess is that right now they are buying a lot of books as well as writing them. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/La_Raconteur Lisa Myer

    Wow, I think your questions are best left for a sociologist to answer, Shirley! Responding as a mere writer and as someone who considers herself a fairly good observer and communicator, I can only offer my own observations. One of my acquaintances — an excellent writer — is the child of a 1970s music legend whose life and tragic death is the stuff of legends. I’ve never once wondered why she never wrote a memoir. Her personality and mine are made of similar stuff insofar that we’re very private people.

    Many people are not concerned with what I call the “privacy of self” — at least not that I’ve observed on social networking sites like Myspace, Twitter and Facebook — and perhaps there is a certain element of “need to share” at play in the memoir writer persona. Their numbers haven’t necessarily increased; we’re just seeing more of it because the digital medium makes it easier for people to write about themselves. The problem with novice memoir writers is that it’s all too easy for them to digress into a personal bloodletting or bitchfest, and the reader comes away with an absence of wisdom, feeling a sense of disconnect, even though the writer’s experience may be somewhat universal in appeal.

    I appreciate a well-written memoir, although these are typically not the type of books I seek out, and when I do purchase one, my choice is never random (“Oh, that writer’s memoir about hoarding looks like it might be good.”). Beth Howard’s “Making Piece,” in which she wrote about the untimely death of her young husband, kept me up till three in the morning, crying, laughing, then crying again, a roll of toilet tissue on my desk. Alyssa Harad’s “Coming To My Senses” drew me into the ethereal world of perfume making (and perfume appreciation). In both instances, there was a certain life experience that the authors wrote about that I too had shared, and they conveyed this both creatively and emotively, in a way that made me relate to them. Good memoir writing is just as challenging as writing a good novel, IMHO.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    You underscore Porter’s point above, Sonia. One of the comments on Jane’s blog said the same thing. I may be a case in point myself. When I left my position as a foundation executive, I was asked to consider other institutional leadership positions. Instead of pursuing them, I chose to do a book proposal. Fortunately, I am early retirement age and can choose.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    You describe the identity quest very well, Linda Joy. The Joseph DeDoux book sounds fascinating. Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote a short story called “Sex Education” that illustrates the point of redoing memory over and over. The short story is about a young girl who was accosted by a minister in a corn field — or was she? She remembers and tells the story three or four times over the course of her lifetime. And depending on her own needs, she remembers the story very differently. And she isn’t lying. She’s just choosing a different focus for her current need. Great story. One of the few I taught long ago that I still remember vividly.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Yes, Megan, there are memoir coaches. And coaches for just about everything else. So walk carefully on the Internet. :-)

    I can tell you from personal experience that moving from writing personal essays to writing a long narrative is not an easy task.

    I’m curious though about why you use the word “icky.” Too egotistical? Too artificial?

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Ha! It’s funny that you say this. An accidental shivaree shooting sounds like you should be writing comedy. That’s another way to take a relatively undramatic story and turn it into a page-turner. Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a case in point. The way Rhoda Janzen describes her ethnic foods made me snort out loud.

    Also, Little Heathens by Mildred Kalish is a romp through childhood. As is Zippy by Haven Kimmel. Not much drama or trauma but a whole lot of fun.

    I also recommend Carol Bordensteiner’s book called Growing Up Country. Delightful!

  • CarolB

    Well presented, Shirley. My thought is that just because a memoir may not be a commercial publishing success does not mean it should not be written. Writing a memoir helps the writer to bring some sense/meaning/value to her life. When I do book talks based on my memoir – a collection of stories about every day life on a family farm in the mid 20th Century – I often hear people say they’ve thought of writing their own stories but don’t because they didn’t do anything special. I tell them most of us live our lives putting meals on the table, getting the kids off to school, making an honest living, and it’s those every day actions that weave our lives and our society together. It’s getting the every day actions completed that is often heroic. People are so hung up on ‘getting published.’ If the stories get written, they may get published. Or they may not. But the experience will have been worthwhile to the writer – and often to the writer’s family.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    So true, Carol. I just told Benjamin, above, about you and your delightful memoir Growing Up Country. The mundane and the dramatic are often separated only by our ability to see and describe the miracles of everyday life. You do that beautifully in your book.

    I gave a talk to a group of retired academics recently called “Why Writing Memoir is Hard . . .And Why You Should Do it Anyway.” Couldn’t agree with you more about publication not being necessary.

  • Joan Rough

    Great post, Shirley. I’ve read memoir/autobiography all of my life and it is my favorite genre. As a human being who sometimes feels lost I learn much about myself by the way I react to a particular story and how it directly relates to my own life. I am not a fan of all of them. I enjoy those in which the writer asks the big questions about life and shares his/her learning with the reader. And for me writing memoir is one of the greatest healing processes I know of.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Lisa, thanks so much for these thoughts. Yes, I notice a great difference among people when it comes to “need to share.” And memoir (and, even more, blogging and social media) attracts more of the “sharer” than the private. Sometimes it’s not pretty. But there’s a lot of bad poetry out in the world, too.

    The two books you mention are new to me. You make me want to read them, although I need to focus on writing instead right now. Deadlines.

    As for memoir writing being as challenging as novel writing, “Amen!”

    I’ve just followed you on Twitter. Hope to learn more about your private self. :-)

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Joan, we all feel lost sometimes. Sometimes it takes another person to help us see the path. I’m glad that memoir has played this mentor role for you. Your comment illustrates the wisdom of humility and compassion. Good memoir can teach us that if we are open to it. I have often finished a memoir remembering Jack Nicholson’s line in Good as It Gets: “You make me want to be a better person.”

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Karen, you have insider experience with memoir as an editor. Thanks for sharing what you’ve seen. There is value in both kinds of memoirs, and those who seek publication are very wise to hire an editor first.

    And your point about late middle age strikes a chord with me too. I know that one from the inside. :-)

    I hope your aunt does write her stories. They will go well with your genealogy work.

  • http://twitter.com/La_Raconteur Lisa Myer

    I adored “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” — that book was hilariously awesome! One of my gal pals got it for me because of my own family of origin. It’s pretty easy to scare up an explosive scandal when you come from this background, Benjamin. For example, my Best Half and I are non-parents *by choice.* KA-BOOM!

  • Richard Gilbert

    I agree. The basic impulse may be the same among the aunts and uncles wanting to save and pass along stories and those of a more literary bent. At least, it appears to be so in my case. I have spent a long time working on a memoir because I really wanted to share a particular experience, and really just one aspect of it. People, readers, always take all kinds of things away. A writer’s motive is kind of like an actor’s conception of his character, the inner idea he uses to animate the character: it comes through, or doesn’t, in the work itself and to the audience may be irrelevant otherwise.

    Great post, Shirley. Thanks, Jane.

  • boldfiction.net

    It is a basic human need to connect with others, to understand, and to be heard and understood. I think that once people realized someone was listening (that there was a demand for it), they answered the invitation to share more stories.

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  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Janzen has a new book coming out in October. It’s Called Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? You’ll want to read it also. I reviewed MIALBD on my blog from an “Old Mennonite” perspective, if you want to read it. I’m grateful to Janzen for opening up a wider cultural conversation about a little-known religion.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Yes, the key to the communication loop is not just having a sender but a receiver. The Internet has closed the loop for many. Now it’s a matter of crafting stories that matter to others — and of sorting through the noise to find the ones best for oneself. That’s a problem the people around the campfire didn’t have.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Richard, I hope you saw the tribute I made to your blog Narrative in the final credits line. Your devotion to the art in your story stirs me. And your deep study of the genre, even before it has fully formed (a point I failed to make above), is helping to form it. Anyone interested in writing memoir should sign up for your blog and read it carefully.

    Another thing I enjoy about your blog is that you have very sophisticated taste and yet you don’t set yourself and your story apart from the impulse you cite above. To use the metaphor of this overview of the field, you have both an elite and a grassroots perspective. I can’t wait to see your book in print.

  • http://twitter.com/La_Raconteur Lisa Myer

    Shirley! Super squee! Oh, yes … this is definitely going on my reading list. Gotta check out your review. Janzen is a fabulous writer and funny as all get-out! :D

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  • Tina Barbour

    A wonderful and well-researched post, Shirley. And I’ve enjoyed reading the comments in response to it. So much to learn about writing a memoir!

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Thanks, Tina. So much fun when a comment thread keeps going. Thanks for your contribution!

  • DazyDayWriter

    Memoir works best an art form and, hopefully, we will move away from the current emphasis on writing memoir like a novel. The trend is an artificial construct in the genre and, ultimately, may influence its staying power. Life can be “story,” yes, but life can also go beyond story. In the end, memoir explores the human condition and that is always beneficial. Enjoyed this, Shirley & Jane.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Thanks, Daisy. I always enjoy your perspective. This comment is timely because I will be revising my draft, trying to keep the reader’s attention but having difficulty with the infamous narrative arc. I have some other structural approaches, and your comment emboldens me to take a hard look at the mss without preconceived assumptions about form. Maybe it will follow function.

  • http://homesteadnotes.blogspot.com TeresaR

    Oooh, and Rose was in the futuristic Weakest Link show while the Doctor was trying to get out of the reality show to rescue her. And of course, one can’t forget Jack fighting off Robotic Trinny and Susannah…but I digress. ;) Yeah…really creepy.

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  • Elaine Masters

    And then there’s Joan Didion and several others who have no earth-shaking events in their books except that they become spiritually, emotionally enlightened.

  • http://twitter.com/adoptedreality Laura

    Shirly and Kathy — I read the post a week ago and I just came upon this comment. My point in the guest post at krpooler.com was that it seems like trauma is everywhere in memoir these days. It’s become a “must have.” I wondered why. Do people relish in others’ misfortunue (rubber-necking?), or is it all about discovering relatable experiences?
    I personally detest pity parties. I start skimming when I see navel-gazing. Nevertheless, I do have to admit that the surge in memoir is related to open-mindedness … the relaxing of taboo, the sense that sharing secrets leads to healing. This was a theme of my own memoir: a kind of middle-finger to those who would judge me. Here are my so-called secrets, do with them what you wish.
    Thanks for your post!
    Laura

  • http://twitter.com/adoptedreality Laura

    Well said, I agree, that in memoir, you don’t have to “convince” the reader of any type of reality. It’s already taken for granted, and the reader wants to know how the author got themselves out of a particular situation.

  • http://www.100memoirs.wordpress.com shirleyhs

    Here’s a HuffPo article that makes Porter’s point about age and memoir:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20121004/us-retirement-today-personal-legacies/

  • Thana saramah

    We would not know about the lives of the disenfranchised. That awareness alone is worth real study. I am reading one right now from 1849, written by a slave. It’s fascinating as it is horrible in its graphic description of the daily life of a young woman who was a third-generation slave. We would not have this data were it not for this genre.

    Can you please cite this quote for me?

  • Thana saramah

    Sorry meant this quote:

    According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. book sales, total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. Also, memoirs in Britain occupied seven out of ten bestselling nonfiction hardcovers in both 2007 and 2008.

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  • http://seanpaulmurphyville.blogspot.com/ Sean Paul Murphy

    Thanks for the insightful post. My memoir, “The Promise or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God,” was recently published by Touchpoint Press. It is my inspirational true story of first faith and first love and how the two became almost fatally intertwined. Despite the so-called boom in memoirs, I had a hard time getting an agent simply because it was a memoir. Many agents read the book, and said they loved it, but they opted against because they said memoirs are hard sells. Some of them had facts and figures to prove their point. Thankfully, I didn’t believe them. I only showed the book to three publishers. All three of them made an offer of one sort or another. They seemed more interested than the agents.

    I guess I must confess that my memoir was born of the “aging population” phenomenon. I am middle-aged, and, after a near death experience, I felt an irresistible urge to tell my story. I am a professional storyteller, but I always valued my privacy too highly to tell my own story. Fortunately, my brush with morality convinced me not to die with my best stories inside of me.

    I want to encourage everyone with the urge to write their story. Even if it doesn’t get published, you will still benefit from the experience!

    Sean Paul Murphy
    Author, The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God
    http://amzn.com/0692200533