...Reading and Writing the Memoir as Genre

This is the age of the memoir….
Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it.
~William Zinsser~

Although it has existed in form and theory for hundreds of years, the memoir was and continues to be one of the most controversial, criticized, and yet praised genres of the literary world. Prior to 1960, most memoirs came in some form through autobiographies, journals, diaries, and even reality turned fictional. It did not, for the most part, actually exist as a specific genre mostly because it was socially unacceptable to make public the details of a person's personal life.

After 1960, the idea of the memoir as its own genre began to explode. With the wave of a "free-for-all" attitude of the 1960s, it became acceptable to share personal stories, feelings, and secrets with the public. Suddenly everyone — largely in America — had a story they wanted to share. Contemporary memoirs have especially begun to gush forth within the last years of the twentieth century, appearing on Oprah Winfrey's book club and through other various media. Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes, won a Pulitzer Prize, while Mary Karr's The Liars' Club sold millions, remaining on the bestseller list for more than a year.

Since Augustine, the idea of the memoir has been troublesome, as both readers and writers are puzzled by the genre. While the memoir may be confusing and often vague in its definition, it nonetheless offers much insight and history on life and is furthermore creative in its literary form and features.

The memoir is most confused with the autobiography, though there is a wide difference between the two. The autobiography describes a person's life from birth to present and is broad in its focus, highlighting events here and there, perhaps having mini-"memoirs" along the way. The memoir, on the other hand, focuses in on one particular time, place, or event of a person's life, usually describing such in narrative form. Good memoirs resist the temptation to include much opinion or commentary along the way, but instead allow the morals or points to speak for themselves.

Memoirs can be fun to read because they move like a novel, yet the details of the stories are — for the most part — true and have really occurred ("for the most part" because human memory is extremely faulty and skewed and sometimes memoirists "make up" to fill in the gaps). As humans, we love to know the details, trials, and joys of other people's lives. The memoir provides these in an interesting way, while allowing us to draw our own insights and conclusions along the way. In his introduction to Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, author and leading authority on writing, William Zinsser, believes that good memoirs "elevate the pain of the past with forgiveness, arriving at a larger truth about families in various stages of brokenness." Through memoir we can learn to find value in other people's experiences.

While current memoirs are considered "good" if there is honesty without whining, there is a point when honesty can go too far. Unfortunately, many American memoirs are considered "trash" because, as Zinsser points out, they wallow in the details of sins and mistakes. Some memoirists have begun to be "chronicles of shame and victimhood." These, Zinsser says, "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." Good memoirs tell a story as to entertain the reader and possibly relate a moral or truth about life. A memoirist has to be willing to get the reader interested in how the author now sees and understands the situation. The key is an engaging voice.