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Insight Into Lives and History...

  • Sandi Greene The Old Schoolhouse Magazine
  • Published Apr 30, 2004
Insight Into Lives and History...

...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.

We should all be encouraged to write our own memoirs and at the same time encourage our children to write memoirs as well. Doing so will not only help in the creative writing process and development, but it will also leave children with something they can go back and remember. While the key of a good memoir is to keep an engaging voice, the young writer should also keep in mind these central elements whenever writing memoir: tell the story in a real and powerful way using vivid adjectives, nouns, and verbs; focus on individual profiles; clearly describe events; observe the environment; arrange the stories in a way that makes sense; determine and set a theme; leave out instances of self-pity or whining; and relate a moral or godly truth in a non-confrontive, but rather subtle way, allowing the story to speak for itself.

Rather than sitting down and writing a book, student writers should begin with small memoirs in one to three pages. Rewriting and improving the craft is important before moving on to larger projects. For good advice on writing memoir, see How to Write a Memoir (cassette) by William Zinsser, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir edited by Russell Baker, and Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art by Judith Barrington. Keep in mind that it is also critical to read good memoirs in order to write good memoirs. Fiction writers improve their writing by reading good fiction. The same goes for any type of genre writing; to write well we must read well.

While my love for the writing and reading of the memoir continues to grow, I have yet to find a substantial amount of good memoirs from a Christian perspective (although the secular industry also has a long way to go as there is still a limited selection of good memoirs). With that in mind, I have found a few memoirs on the Great Depression, though none are overtly Christian in their perspective. Still, the stories and histories may give a parent or student greater understanding into a person's feelings and thoughts as they lived through the Depression. The books may offer new ideas and insights to a world and time that we will probably never have to know or experience. Although I have briefly commented on the books' cleanliness in regard to content and vulgarity, I do recommend that — like with any book — a parent first read the texts to make sure they are age appropriate for their student(s).

The Orchard: A Memoir, by Adele Crockett Robertson (Metropolitan Books, 1995). This book is a beautiful and touching memoir of a young woman's struggle to save her family's farm and apple orchard during the Great Depression. Through the endless debts and broken machinery, Kitty manages to work hard to bring the farm back to life. The Orchard celebrates the good in people despite poverty and tragedy. It uses moving language and details to describe the conditions of the New England Depression and some of the internal and external battles that took place. While some of the descriptions and chapters may become long-winded and slow, the text is well-worth reading, with entertaining and interesting characters. Out of all the memoirs I read on the Depression, The Orchard was my favorite.

The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America, by T.H. Watkins (Henry Holt and Company, 1999). Because of its enormous size (over 500 pages), you may want to pick and choose from the stories and memoirs, which touch on various aspects of the Depression. The author tries as much as possible to get away from politics and new policies and instead focuses on how individuals were affected. The Hungry Years is filled with numerous stories about what people dealt with and experienced. Through the people, their stories, and the voice and tone, this book can definitely give one a large view of what life was like during the Depression.

The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War, by Samuel Hynes (Viking, 2003), is an engaging book full of one man's boyhood stories during the Depression. The Growing Seasons keeps your attention and reads like a fast-paced novel. One young boy's personal experiences, tribulations, and joys can give great insight into what the Depression was like for youth and their families. Hynes definitely has a gift for storytelling and knows how to intelligently craft the memoir through his language and images. Because of some mature content and situations, however, this book would be best for young adult and adult audiences, though parts of it would be good for reading to younger students interested in how a person their age lived during the Depression.

Although memoirs are becoming more accepted and read by the general public, unfortunately they are still somewhat ignored by academia and scholars, which is troubling since memoirs are rich and complex in form. While elements of the memoir can appear in autobiographies and other genres, because of its purpose, power, and literary contribution, the memoir should remain its own genre and further seek to expand in its idea, theory, publishing, and criticism. With time the memoir genre will hopefully continue to grow and improve, enlightening our lives and helping us to learn from other people's experiences all in a creative and moving form.

Copyright, 2004. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Sandi Greene recently received an M.A. degree in English from Northern Arizona University. She is a freelance writer/editor and teaches community college English classes. She and her husband, Bob, live in Arizona and are expecting their first child, Justice Abigail, in March. Right now, 19 free gifts for homeschoolers.