A Million Little Memoirs

Originally Published in Wisconsin Writers Association Newsletter, Vol. 58; No. 2 Summer 2009

Everyone’s life includes many stories worth telling. Perhaps it’s this belief that has spawned the increased interest in memoirs. Or maybe it was 2006’s fact/fiction controversy surrounding the admission by James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, that’s he’d’ fabricated some of his story.

That’s what made me want to better understand writing memoir. In my search, I found Modern American Memoirs, edited by Annie Dillard and Cort Conley, a collection of memoir excerpts by American writers published from 1917 to 1992.

The editor’s introduction describes the typical writer of memoir as:

a single, composite American of any heritage or gender, who appears in a             family, grows up somewhere, and somehow watches, learns, falls in            love, works, and perhaps has children and grandchildren.”

I guess that covers anyone alive and breathing. They also seem to be saying no story is too small or unimportant to be written.

Memoir can be a writer’s frank recollection of a painful interaction or of a slight that cut to the core. It can be the laugh out loud recounting of a trick played on an unsuspecting parent. Or, how about a descriptive profile of that memorable funny/sad relative who can be counted on to act outrageously during holiday get togethers? Memoir is any writer’s opportunity to tell their story no matter how small. I’d always thought, someday, I’d write about my own very ordinary life.

The dictionary defines memoir as “a memory” and as “a narrative composed from personal experience.” Memoirs offer a fixed point of view, an analysis of ideas or dramatic scenes; the narration can be intellectual or intimate across a wide range of characters and events.

The memoirist can confess, eulogize, reflect, inform or persuade. The tone can be confiding, scholarly, funny or any combination of these.  Some writer’s feel they need to be seasoned to write a worthy piece but the editors say “writing memoir early produces results before the writer smooths off the edges of his characters.”

They tell how Edwin Muir, poet and translator of Kafka, wrote two-thirds of his Autobiography before World War I, thinking he’d be killed in the war. When he returned, he quickly wrote the final third before being sent off to the Second World War. Again, he survived and his memoir is thought to be one of the most vivid and thoughtful because he wrote about his early life while he could still remember it.

Sometimes the object of much attention is what’s omitted. Henry Adams left out his twenty-year marriage from The Education of Henry Adams. Martin Van Buren left his wife out. Alfred Kazin omitted his sister and Loren Eisley excluded his wife because she prized her privacy. The memoirist must always be prepared to endure the wrath of someone either forgotten or included since the reaction can be pretty much the same.

In the nineteenth century, nonfiction had more literary respect than fiction. So many writers, Poe, Melville, Twain peddled some of their stories as memoir; this was to distinguish them from a mere romance and therefore attract more serious readers. In the 20th century it was the opposite and some of its finest works of fiction have strong autobiographical elements. Think Ernest Hemingway.

While some memoirs cover whole generations of American life, they can also cover one short span of time. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s memoir, Wait ‘Till Next Year, chronicles her and her father’s love of baseball during one memorable World Series competition. Russell Baker’s Growing Up focuses upon his relationship with this newly widowed mother trying to survive in Depression times. These touching and heartfelt memoirs include an interesting view of early 20th century American life.

The writer usually has the onus of labeling the work though it can be seen by others differently. An example is Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere. He tended to call it fiction but various editors have called it poetry, fiction, fable or essay. Best Essays of 1988 reprinted one chapter. The book won the 1991 PEN/Faulkner Ernest Hemingway Award for fiction.

The controversy generated by James Frey was such a big deal the publisher took back the book and Oprah demanded an apology.  Poor James Frey really took the rap for loosely defining a literary form that, over the years, had been defined rather loosely. Frey said he just wanted his readers to feel his pain and thought he had to embellish to get the point across. Instead he’s paid a very high price and perhaps delivered a valuable lesson to all writers.

Frey’s book probably would have been a best seller no matter what it was labeled. But the wrath of the reader was invoked. I had put a hold on the book and when the story broke then cancelled it. Reading friends defended him and said they’d read it anyway. I guess I just thought it wasn’t cool to lie. I would hate to think that all the wonderful memoirs I’ve read were just made up fiction designed to sell more books.

Looking at the long and interesting history of the memoir only raises awareness of the freedom writer’s have in telling their story and leaving a legacy for future generations. As long as it’s the truth! We all have a million little memoirs swimming around in our head. We simply need to recognize them.




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