I was recently talking with someone who confused autobiography with memoir, and that got me thinking about why I like the memoir form. We’ve probably all heard the cliche of someone saying: when I get old, I’m going to write my memoirs. And I’ve always thought, wow, this is going to get saucy!
But that’s not what modern memoir is. While memoir runs the risk of navel gazing or the public airing of very dirty laundry, the real value of memoir is when the writer is able to truly delve into their own psyche and tease apart what it was that made a particular memory significant.
Vivian Gornick does a great job of explaining this:
“We are in the presence of a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows—moving from unearned certainty to thoughtful reconsideration to clarified self knowledge.”
And again from Gornick:
“In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve dynamic. Inevitably, the piece builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation. The kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension. Here, it is self-implication that is required. To see one’s own part in the situation—that is, one’s own frightened or cowardly or self-deceived part—is to create the dynamic.”
Sven Birkerts gets to it this way:
“…apart from whatever painful or disturbing acts they recount, their deeper purpose is to discover the connections that allow these experiences to make larger sense. They are about circumstances becoming meaningful when seen from a certain remove. They all, to greater or lesser degree, use the vantage of the present to get at what might be called the hidden narrative of the past.”
And from Patricia Hampl:
“…but in writing memoir, I did not simply relive the experience. Rather, I explored the mysterious relationship between all the images I could round up and even more impacted feelings that caused me to store the images safely in memory. Stalking the relationship, seeking the congruence between stored image and hidden emotion—that’s the job of memoir.”
When I wrote about some key memories in my own life, I was struck by how hard it was for me to get the image out of my head and put it into text. When I read what I wrote, it evoked a different image for me, a strangely morphed version of my original concept. As I layered on my own ideas and thoughts about the situation, my mind’s eye saw yet a different expanse of memory. It is this dynamic, this interplay between my own starting memory and my ending written memory that makes writing memoir so interesting to me. I have found that writing memoir is a way to take control of the memory, wrestle it down to the ground, and transform it into art. Somehow this releases the energy of the memory and creates a persistent sense of ease, at least for me.