As co-host of It Matters Radio, I am asked to read many memoirs. Some of them I find good; some are incredibly impressive; many, to be honest, I could do without.
Personally, I’ve never wanted to write a memoir. I’ve never thought my life complex or meaningful enough to warrant one. My preference has always been to stand back and observe while others took action and risk, which is not to say that I have no great moments of revelation to be shared. There have been a few, but not a coherent set that would make a memoir—not a full foundation on which to base a tale.
That said, I’ve noticed that most memoirs rest on the shaky foundation of post-traumatic stress. Often they are piacular, meant to make atonement for the guilt that accompanies the memory of those traumatic events. That guilt may be for harm done to others, for almost doing harm, for not doing right, or simply for ones own unacceptable actions. Whatever the nature of the remorse, it eats at the writer’s innards and demands expiation.
Of course, who among us is not haunted by at least one traumatic event from the past? Who among us does not remember at least one reason to feel guilt? I certainly have had my moments, but they don’t suffice for a memoir because they are not the thread that binds the meaning of my life.
To be effective, a memoir must go beyond the event and provide a grain, a consistent integrating pattern for the writer’s life. Horrible as it may have been, that one anxiety attack, that one experience of rape, that one moment of confronted rage: these are not sufficient for a memoir. A good memoir vibrates with continuity and repetition; it has a quality of pentimento in which the same themes and even events keep returning to the narrative flow—each time with deepened understanding. The therapeutic journal your shrink has suggested you keep, the one in which you write over and over about that traumatic event, that is not a memoir. It may be helpful to you, but it isn’t for publication.
Sadly, the availability of self-publishing has debased memoir more than any other form of writing. It is too easy to conflate one’s therapist’s interest with a waiting audience.
Even when you are cured, when you leave that last therapeutic appointment, your experience is not sufficient if there is not a clear repetition, a growing crescendo of experience.
But experience—even repetitive experience—without growth is not the stuff that makes a memoir work. Unhappily, there are many women—and men—who have been sexually abused. Starting in childhood and continuing into adulthood, they have suffered at the hands of others who have cared for nothing but their own gratification. A number of these people have decided that their stories are important. And they are, only not to the world. When faced with another version of that all-to-frequent gothic tale, I want to know how did the woman grow, how did she come out the better person. “I’ve learned to let go and go on with my life,” “I’ve accepted my savior and am healed,” or similar one-liner solutions to the devastation of such a life do not make a memoir. The cessation of your personal suffering does not mean that you are offering the world a lesson that deserves $14.99 on Amazon.
No, the lessons you offer must be part of a larger fabric of your story. You are weaving a tale. Just as weaving cloth, you need a warp and woof, so in weaving your tale the repetitive trauma must crisscross the growing awareness of who you are and who you are becoming to give a whole cloth.
Which brings us to yet a third essential element in memoir. If we go into a store to buy cloth or clothing, our eyes are drawn to patterns more than to the simple one color fabrics. That piece of cloth has to evoke something in us. To be stirred by a memoir, the reader must find something in its fabric that is personally arousing. That doesn’t mean it has to be something the reader has personally experienced, quite the contrary. I can read a well written memoir by a rape survivor and become very involved. I care about the person and am furious at the perpetrator. More importantly, I suffer with the author through their personal journey to wholeness and redemption. The key is that I can relate to the person, not identify with the experience. Indeed, I would be less interested in a story that I could find in my own life. I want a story that will take me to new places and ideas. Relatability is not being like me but in sharing our common humanity. For you to share that with me means that you have come across as real, as authentic.
How do I know that I am meeting the real you? How do I know that you are authentic? First, I look for a sense of humor and a realization of the irony that is in your life—as it is in every life. Is it not ironic, for instance, that the child of an alcoholic marries somebody who is marijuana dependent? Isn’t it part of the paradox of life that we all move not from the pot into the fire but from one pot to another? How about the man driven by his desire to succeed in business who is fleeced by the sharper predator? If the memoirist can’t see the irony and laughability of their life, how can they possibly be in touch with its meaning?
If I can relate to you, if I believe in you, then I want to read your story. But there has to be a story for me to read. That is the fourth key element in a successful memoir. Memoirs are not autobiographies; they are not a history of the writer’s experiences. They are stories that are being shared. They take the reader on a journey. That the road is personal and based on true events rather than being made up by the novelist’s mind does not make the storytelling less important.
Think about good fiction. No matter how much it focuses on the experience of a central character, there has to be a world in which that character’s life is set. Events cannot come out of the blue as if the world is at the mercy of whimsy. Motivation and complexity of character, appropriate richness of detail, and a narrative voice that fits with the content are some of the requisites for writing a good story. They are just as necessary for a memoir.
Recently, my abstract thoughts about writing memoir have been challenged by the experience of working with a man who asked me to help him write his story. From South Sudan, Deng Atum left his home at age eight and has not been back since. His journey has taken him on torturous routes replete with starvation and death. He has survived refugee camps. Eventually, he was sent by a charitable organization to the United States, where he has lived for many years. The events of his life are overwhelming and horrific. Clearly the stuff of memoir; but are they? Taking those events and shaping them into his story has been a consuming task for the past few months and we are far from finished.
With each chapter, I go back over the list of ingredients that I have laid out above: Trauma, check; growth, check; humanity and humor, check; and story telling, check. If they are all there, the memoir writer is ready to go on to the next chapter; each building on the ones before, a carefully crafted tale that will in the end intrigue, entertain, and enlighten. At least that’s the goal.