The Age of Memoir Print
Essays and Memoirs

Leger_Woman_with_Book(Review Americana, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2007)

For the past year, I've been monitoring the New York Times' nonfiction paperback bestsellers, and I find that 80 percent (12 of 15) are either memoirs or autobiographies. It's true that because I write critically about memoir as well as teach and write the form, I'm partial. But memoir's popularity still astounds me. It's the literary form of our time. Why?

Americans are an impatient lot. We don't want to wait until we're old and grey to discover what has mattered to us. The memoir has evolved so that octogenarian or college student can use the form to examine the emotional truths of their lives. Unlike autobiography, memoir doesn't require swaths of time to pass before a writer attends to an illness, a joy, a tragedy. If you haven't already, read Joan Didion's sudden memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, the immediate telling of her husband's death in 2004.

Americans are also a grouping lot. Increasingly, writers and readers, brought together by a university extension writing class, are meeting in small groups to read, to discuss each other's work, and to be heard. Above the din of family. Away from the racket of work. Nestled in a friend's living room where being heard is the prime directive. In a culture bloated with pundits, doctors, publicists, how-to gurus, lawyers, know-it-all family members, no one is listening. The memoir form and the memoir group exist to pay full attention.

Another draw is the paradoxical anonymity of intimate writing. While we may be known by our friends, our names on a published book or essay are unrecognizable. An author as "nobody" fosters in memoir readers the idea that they, too, can write their tales. From an unknown writer, we get far more depth and daring than the cookie-cutter as-told-to tales politicians, athletes, and stars spin. We are moved by and identify with non-celebrities because their stories are our stories as well.

Hence, boomers, new immigrants, survivors of tragedy, and the suddenly ill, some in their 20s, comprise the new authorship. Writing about conflict, or loss, authors may upset prejudices, unlock traumas, and unseat preconceptions about their personality, gender, and age. Memoir promotes maturity, a tack that is desirable as it challenges the putative necessity of therapists.

Memoir is attractive because it leads us to new understanding or back to our calling. Carl Jung saw that life extension would usher in an age of individuation. Jung wrote that "a human being would certainly not grow to be seventy or eighty years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species." Personal narrative brings us to unexpected mid- and late-life meaning, phases of purposeful exploration we might neglect without such a prying form.

Memoir writing offers a new kind of relationship between writer and subject. For an author to tell what's been bottled up inside about her father, for example, she must show compassion and fairness toward the man. In life, we may avoid this, but the memoir and the reader insist that the feelings and perspectives of our subjects (who are voiceless) be present. Read, or listen on tape, to the humanity about family that Frank McCourt or Mary Karr achieve. There is not one unsympathetic note in either.

Memoirists limit themselves. They carve out portions of their lives—divorce, a passion, the death of a child—to address. Such restraint allows them to go far deeper than autobiographers do, who, too often, survey only highs and lows. Memoirists activate memory: they dramatize the bond between the person who is remembering (the writer now) and the person who is being remembered (the self then). The disjoined past and present are united, a healing tool vital to the writer and to the reader who also seeks to mend. Such repair is evident in memoirists like Jeannette Walls, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Barack Obama.

Finally, Oprah Winfrey has helped fuel the form. As the book's best friend, she has featured memoirists of truth (Sidney Poitier) and truancy (James Frey). Though riveting TV as it happened, the Frey fracas has done negligible damage to the form. In fact, his fiction clarified what is and is not acceptable for memoirists to do. Those of us who love the memoir may thank Winfrey for making Frey's lies her personal crusade and thereby elucidating the differences between factual and emotional truth.

Memoir is the most democratic of literary forms and, thus, the most American. It is also, for writer and reader, the most useful. To write memoir asks only for our honesty in exchange for self-discoveries that will change us and connect us to others. The memoir is in and of our age. It is in us, and we are in it.