Two Years of Memoirs
When I first started writing this column in June of 2009, I was a memoir novice. I had recently gotten on an essay-reading kick, and I couldn’t get enough of short-form memoir greats like the Davids: David Rakoff and David Sedaris. I loved how I felt a connection to these authors, the same way I felt a bond with my favorite fictional characters. I think of David Sedaris’s entire family—his parents Lou and Sharon, his wacky sister Amy and his artistic little sister Gretchen—as my own dysfunctional second cousins. In my early memoir-reading days, I bought the books that were featured in the store window at Barnes & Noble, but I was too busy reading fiction to give the less notable memoirs a try. Enter Bibliobuffet. Starting this column gave me a great excuse to dive into lesser-known memoirs from first-time authors and small publishing houses. Two years ago, I had no idea how much memoirs would teach me about reading, writing, and reviewing.
Before I wrote my first review, I set some parameters for the column based on my own personal preferences. Tackling the entire memoir genre felt too daunting. There are so many wonderful new memoirs released every month, and I wanted to focus specifically on these modern stories. A new wave of memoirists have become wildly popular over the past few years, with trailblazers like Sedaris paving the way. Because I had initially fallen in love with essayists like Rakoff and Sedaris from their appearances on This American Life, I was already familiar with a small pool of these modern memoir writers—but I couldn’t wait to read and review my new finds.
When I started the column, I also decided to steer clear of celebrity memoirs, and so far, I’ve only reviewed one book with a co-author (Patti Lupone: A Memoir, by Patti Lupone with Digby Diehl). Although they fit under the category of “modern” memoirs, celebrity memoirs are a completely different animal. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to figure out how much of the book was actually written by the celebrity. In celebrity memoirs, juicy plot details reign, and the actual writing comes second. What’s a good celebrity memoir without a few never-before-heard stories for fans to latch onto? And although celebrity memoirs can be rewarding if you’re familiar with the celebrity’s work, it makes them that much more difficult to review. Even in a wonderful, well-written memoir, my preconceived notions of Paris Hilton or a cast member from Jersey Shore would make it tricky for me to take their books seriously. On the other hand, I’d have a hard time reviewing a truly horrible memoir written by a celebrity I admire. Instead, I prefer memoirs written by people who are writing a book because they enjoy writing, not because their agent thought it was a good idea. And I’ve discovered new, unknown writers who have moved me without the assistance of a co-author to do the actual writing for them.
I learned that when I review a memoir, I need to consider one thing that fiction reviewers never think about: the stories I read are someone’s actual reality. It’s tricky to critique plot holes and story arcs when you’re reviewing someone’s life. Over the past two years, my biggest challenge has been learning to separate the author from the protagonist. I’m often tempted to write a negative review of a book just because I don’t like the actions or opinions of the narrator. In fiction, when a character is despicable with no redeeming qualities, I’m able to imagine the author probably doesn’t share the same views as this fictional person. Maybe this character was written to stir things up, or to prove a sociological point. But in a memoir, the author and the protagonist are one in the same. The lines are blurred. And if the author of a memoir seems oblivious, doesn’t care about his actions, or hasn’t learned some type of lesson from his bad behavior, writing a fair review becomes even harder. Did I dislike the book, or did I dislike the author’s personality? On the other hand, if the author has bravely overcome a serious illness, who am I to give his memoir a bad review? Fictional protagonists don’t get offended or hurt if I write something negative. Memoir protagonists, on the other hand, are extremely vocal about it.
I’ve come to realize that the difference between a touching memoir and a not-so-good one are the author’s bragging rights. If the author approaches the memoir from a “look what happened to me, isn’t that terrible/wonderful that all of those things happened,” the book suffers. But when the author uses these events as a way to explore his own feelings and work his way through the pain/joy of his circumstances, the memoir shines. There’s a sense of urgency when it feels like a memoir needs to be written for the sake of the author, instead of the sake of the audience. Even if they were never published, my favorite memoirs would have been scribbled in a journal by the author and stuffed under the bed. They’re the restless, urgent thoughts of a writer needing to express himself. Writing a memoir is not just an excuse to brag—it’s a way to sort out the decisions you’ve made in your life, good and bad, and to come to terms with your feelings as honestly as possible.
My favorite example of a despicable character writing a touching memoir is Andre Dubus III, author of Townie. Although Dubus describes himself as a violent man who’s always ready to start a fight, he doesn’t allow these characteristics to define him. Instead of bragging about the fights he gets into, or telling readers how horrible it is that these fights always seem to happen to him, Dubus explores his own psyche. Throughout the book’s journey, the author discovers a way to quell his violence: writing. By changing his actions and dealing with his past, the author finds freedom. The result is a stunning exploration of Dubus’s inner turmoil, and readers are rewarded by watching him transform from a violent brute to a gentle, introspective author.
Because memoir writing has become so popular, not all of the books I pick up are written with such finesse. In fact, most of them aren’t. Before I start reading a book to review, I sort through dozens of memoirs that I consider “fad books.” Fad books are the worst type of bragging memoirs—they’re not written with the audience or the author in mind. These memoirs are released because the author and publishing company thought a book written on this subject would sell. Or worse, they’re written because a memoir on a similar subject was a bestseller, and since that formula has already sold so many books, why not try it again? When the subject matter interests me (food, theater, medicine), I’m sometimes tempted to pick up and review a fad book, but the results are almost always disappointing. These memoirs feel hollow and empty, and although the book may begin with a strong idea, the author is then faced with the task of filling up three hundred pages about this idea. If the writer isn’t overwhelmed with passion for the subject he’s writing, it’s immediately obvious. Fad books often rely on catchy titles that the author continues to repeat ad nauseam throughout the book (i.e., Confessions of a Rebel Debutante by Anna Fields, Year of the Cock by Alan Wieder). Fad memoirs are everywhere, and although at first they seem classy, sleek and well-marketed, they’re usually more trouble than they’re worth.
I probably won’t be writing a memoir anytime soon but reading so many true stories has helped me in my own work. Although this seems pretty obvious, memoirs that provide a laundry list of events that happened in chronological order become tiring after the first few pages. “Show, don’t tell” is one of the cardinal rules of writing, and yet, I’ve read only a handful of memoirs that are written this way. What touches me in a memoir, what really makes me feel something, is when the author reacts to each anecdote she tells with a critical eye. How did she react in the moment? How did she really feel? If she could do it all over again, how would she have done it? How does she feel about that moment now? The author’s inner journeys are a heck of a lot more interesting than the events that have actually happened.
Truth in memoirs isn’t a huge deal to me, but honesty is. I’ve learned that there is a difference. The human mind isn’t perfect—an author may remember something that didn’t actually happen, and as a reader, that’s not my problem. A memoir is an examination of life through the eyes of one person, the author. If a book describes what really happened in the author’s eyes, and it also happens to be a good story, I’m fine with it. I don’t want to read the online rebuttal from the author’s aunt that describes all of the little inconsistencies in the book—let her write her own memoir. When the writing doesn’t feel honest to me, however, that’s an entirely different problem. When an author has a deep desire to write a memoir, the book has a pulse. Like the beating floorboards in The Telltale Heart, the entire book vibrates with an undeniable force. If an author writes the memoir with dollar signs in her eyes, it feels dead. And if the book isn’t important to the author, there’s a good chance it won’t mean much to me.
I’ve reviewed fifty memoirs in this column, and in the past two years, I’ve made leaps and bounds in a genre that was initially new to me. But I still have a lot to learn—sometimes, I’ll finish a book and have no idea how to review it. I’ll sit in front of a blank page for an hour, realizing it’s nearly impossible for me to distill the memoir’s essence into a few paragraphs. But my favorite memoirs are the ones that fill me with a fire I didn’t even know I had. While I read, I scribble notes until I have five or ten possible angles to explore. I start writing as the sun is setting, and after what seems like a few minutes, I look at the clock to see it’s way past midnight. I fly right past my anticipated word count, anxious to share my discoveries. When a good memoir fills me with this wild, unbridled energy, I can’t wait to read a thousand more.
Books mentioned in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.