This is the Age of the Memoir

In the Introduction to his book on Memoir writing entitled Inventing the Truth Willam Zinser observed that: “This is the age of the memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it. The boom has its ultimate symbol in Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt’s account of his squalid childhood in an Irish slum. In its literary shape it’s a classic memoir, recalling a particular period and place in the writer’s life. 

“It also hit the double jackpot of critical and popular success, winning the Pulitzer Prize and perching at the top of the bestseller lists for well over a year. Beyond all that, it’s the perfect product of our confessional times. Until this decade memoir writers tended to stop short of harsh reality, cloaking with modesty their most private and shameful memories. Today no remembered episode is too sordid, no family too dysfunctional, to be trotted out for the wonderment of the masses in books and magazines and on talk shows….

“If the books by McCourt, Hamill, Karr, and Wolff represent the new memoir at its best, it’s because they were written with love. They elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness. There’s no self-pity, no whining, no hunger for revenge; the writers are as honest about their own young selves as they are about the sins of their elders. We are not victims, they want us to know. We come from a tribe of fallible people, prisoners of our own destructiveness, and we have endured to tell the story without judgment and to get on with our lives. 

“Such tolerance, however, is no longer an American virtue. The national appetite for true confession has loosed a torrent of memoirs that are little more than therapy, the authors bashing their parents and wallowing in the lurid details of their tussle with drink, drug addiction, rape, sexual abuse, incest, anorexia, obesity, codependency, depression, attempted suicide, and other fashionable talk-show syndromes. These chronicles of shame and victimhood are the dark side of the personal narrative boom, giving the form a bad name. If memoir has become mere self-indulgence and reprisal—so goes the argument—it must be a degraded genre.

“The truth is that memoir writing, like every other kind of writing, comes in both good and bad varieties. That’s the only standard that matters. Whether the authors of certain notorious recent memoirs ought to have revealed as much as they did, breaking powerful taboos and social covenants, isn’t finally the issue. The issue is: Is it a good book or a bad book? 

“A good memoir requires two elements—one of art, the other of craft. The first element is integrity of intention. Memoir is the best search mechanism that writers are given. Memoir is how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and what values and heritage shaped us. If a writer seriously embarks on that quest, readers will be nourished by the journey, bringing along many associations with quests of their own. 

“The other element is carpentry. Good memoirs are a careful act of construction. We like to think that an interesting life will simply fall into place on the page. It won’t. We like to think that Thoreau went home to Concord and just wrote up his notes. He didn’t. He wrote seven drafts of Walden in eight years, piecing together by what Margaret Fuller called the mosaic method a book that seems casual and even chatty. Thoreau wasn’t a woodsman when he went to the woods; he was a writer, and he wrote one of our sacred texts. 

“Memoir writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone, not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events.”

William Zinser. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (pp. 5-6). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. 

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