From various statistics I’ve seen over the past few years, and also based on the books I see coming out from bloggers and writers I follow, the most popular type of reading material right now is the memoir. I think I’ve written before that I feel a bit conflicted about memoirs, although I admit I’m not immune to the appeal of taking a peak into someone’s personal life. The memoirs I’ve enjoyed most, however, tend to be ones which are about more universal topics than the writer’s personal relationships, etc.
For example, I’m highly anticipating the release of Clare and Elena Dunkle’s companion memoirs about anorexia and its impact on family. While I’m sure they will discuss their personal lives, I know that Clare Dunkle’s book is both about a mother’s role in the recovery of a child with an eating disorder, and about the actual process of writing the two memoirs. Those topics are general enough that they have a universal appeal beyond the private story of the mother and daughter.
Perhaps because I am a novelist, I find stories (even true ones) which are limited to a single person’s experience uninspiring.
I want to read a story whose themes expand to ideas and reflections which have an impact on everyone. Whether a story is fiction or non-fiction, it must have a sweeping application, I feel, or else reading it becomes a sort of voyeurism. Perhaps on the author’s part, too, writing a story which is only a reflection of him or herself and nothing broader is an exercise in narcissism, rather than the creation of art.
The reason I’m rambling on about this is because I have a novel which I decided to write as if it is a memoir by a child about his recently deceased, alcoholic father. It was my NaNoWriMO effort from 2013, in fact, so it needs to be heavily revised and expanded. I was thinking about it recently, since I’m hoping to tackle it this summer, once I’ve finished the editing process on House of Mirrors. I’m tempted to start it completely over, using the old draft more as an outline than as the direct basis of the manuscript.
Since it is extremely brief in novel terms (55,000 words), I need to flesh it out substantially, and for the past year or so, I’ve been not really sure how to do so. Recently, though, I went to the Fashionista’s book club and a friend of mine unexpectedly was prompted to explain the plot of her book/memoir/master’s thesis. The story was supposed to be a biography of a local woman who apparently was a member of the Hitler Youth, but she backed out of the project at the last minute, leaving my friend in something of a pinch.
So she decided to write a memoir about the book she could no longer write.
She still went on her funded research trip to Germany, and she had a basic outline of the woman’s life, so she wrote about the research, the interactions with the woman (name changed, of course), and her own imaginations of what the woman’s anecdotes might have been. The book actually sounds fascinating – sort of a study of the writing process and its challenges, combined with the impact that history has on a writer’s topics. Even I, already professed to be not much of a memoir-reader, will read that book if she can get it published!
Her words about her experience worked themselves into my memory, though, and from there they gave me the germ of an idea. As it currently stands, my novel disguised as a memoir is almost completely composed of the child’s reminiscence about his father, combined with stories from the father’s friends and family. I think that the story has emotional weight already in its portrait of the father, but since I chose to write it in the form of a memoir it needs more contribution from the child.
The point of a memoir, after all, seems to be the impact of an event on the writer.
So from listening to my friend, I realized that my current manuscript already has the root it needs to be fleshed out to a better novel. The child is a novelist/screenwriter, you see. He has been deeply affected by his father’s alcoholism, which he sees as tied to his Native American heritage. So the first published work he wrote was a story about a Native American who travels the world looking for identity and only finds it on returning to his home on a reservation.
When he returns home for his father’s funeral, he discovers that his father has a dog-eared copy of this book by his bed, heavily annotated. Obviously this has an impact on him in my current manuscript, but I have realized, thanks to my friend’s anecdotes about her own memoir, that the child’s experience in writing the book is the way to give a portrait of how his childhood affected him. Since even in a fictional memoir, I don’t want the story to devolve into narcissistic self-reflection, having the plot be divided between reminiscence about the father and the son’s memory of writing a book heavily influenced by his cultural background should solve that problem.
Anyway, in all this, I’d like to experiment with the memoir form to see how well a necessarily intensely personal story can speak to a broad audience, without resorting to any sort of voyeurism or narcissism to lure in readers. Granted, it’s not my personal story, but even in fiction I don’t want to catch interest with cheap tricks (I view pandering to curiosity about overly intimate details as a sort of trick, you see). We’ll see how my experiment works as I delve into it this summer!
Also, I’d love to know how my readers feel about memoirs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable reading them (I have, in a few cases!). Do you feel that fiction or the true experiences of a living person is more valuable to read? I feel like the knowledge that an event is ‘true’ in a historical/factual sense sometimes detracts from its value in my mind, but I know not everyone shares this reaction. Please feel free to explain why you appreciate that approach – or don’t, as the case may be!