Is memoir a genre? Consider these matched pairs.

by Jerry Waxler

For more insight into the power and importance of memoirs, read the Memoir Revolution and learn why now is the perfect time to write your own.

I first became aware of matching pairs of memoirs after the publicity campaign last year for the memoir “Beautiful Boy” by David Sheff, whose son Nic was addicted to crystal meth. The dad’s memoir was accompanied by the memoir, “Tweak”, written from Nic Sheff’s point of view, about the nightmarish period of his addiction. The two books created a well-deserved media splash, including the interview I heard on national public radio. I read both books and learned so much, seeing this tragic situation from two different, and yet intimately connected perspectives.

Then, I read a less self-conscious pair of memoirs, Joan Rivers’ “Enter Talking” and Steve Martin’s “Born Standing Up.” Written decades apart, these memoirs describe the journey of the two comedians from anonymity to fame. Despite their overlapping topics, I felt as curious through the second as I was through the first. The two books complemented each other, giving me deeper insight than either would have done alone.

Recently I read the New York Times bestseller “Color of Water” by James McBride, son of a black Christian father and a white Jewish mother. I found the book informative and uplifting. After I finished, I noticed a similar book near the top of my reading pile, “Black, White, and Jewish,” by Rebecca Walker. Previously, I might have rejected it on the premise that one memoir about mixed-race parents was enough. But now, I was eager to learn more.  “Black, White, and Jewish” turned out to be invigorating, another excellent read, and another window into one of my favorite topics, an individual’s search for identity.

Despite the superficial similarities of the two books, they were massively different. Rebecca was trained in literary arts. James was journalist and jazz musician. Rebecca’s mother was Alice Walker, the famous black author of “The Color Purple.” James’ mother was an anonymous white woman, whose only claim to public attention was that she was usually the only white person in the room. Rebecca spent her childhood shuttling back and forth between posh white communities on the east coast and multi-racial communities in San Francisco. James lived exclusively in black urban areas. The differences go on and on.

Each of the books informed me in ways the other had not. By reading memoirs, comparing them, and adding up my experience, I am increasingly convinced these tales of real life are emerging as a full-fledged genre.

What is a genre?

When a reader picks up any detective novel, the expected formula for the book is that someone dies and then the protagonist sleuths to unmask the killer. Of course, within the formula, the author introduces all manner of variations. The murder could be motivated by power, revenge, or greed. The detective could be a grandmother in town for the holiday, a hard-nosed cop, or a burned out private eye.

At first, it may seem impossible to fit memoirs into a well-defined formula. But despite the infinite variations in people’s lives, memoirs all share certain features, and these shared features appear to define a category. While every memoir stretches the “rules” in some way, they have enough in common that I have put together the features of what looks like a genre to me.

A memoir is a story

A memoir is driven by the power of its story, a formula as old as recorded history. In the beginning of a story, the protagonist feels some need, frustration, or desire. Circumstances force the protagonist on a journey, moving past obstacles by making choices. Eventually, a little older and hopefully wiser, the protagonist reaches some conclusion, and the dramatic tension is relieved.

Inside the protagonist’s perspective

Memoirs place our point of view inside the protagonist’s mind. Seeing the world from a real person’s mind generally feels significantly more nuanced and less predictable than what we expect in fiction.

Looking back with greater wisdom

While the bulk of a memoir takes place within a particular period, the reader knows that the author is writing this book after the experience is complete. This is tricky because we know the author has gained wisdom about this experience, but the story starts before the protagonist knew what was coming. A strong memoir will release information slowly and in its own time, stringing us along and building suspense. As a memoir reader, I enjoy this intriguing relationship between author and protagonist, and am always eager to reach the end to learn what lessons the author has discovered.

Character Arc of the protagonist is a valuable aspect of a memoir

The stories we admire most tend to be the ones that allow the protagonist to grow. For example, they gain insight into their moral responsibilities, or achieve emotional closure that convinces us they will be less likely to repeat their mistakes.

Truth

Memory is slippery. Conversations can seldom be remembered word for word even a few hours later, and major events which seem clear in one person’s mind might be remembered differently by a sibling. Memoir writers do their best, and readers expect that the story is told as truthfully as possible through the eyes of a fallible human being.

How will you fit your lifestory into this budding genre?

There is a good chance the main theme of your life has already been covered in someone else’s memoir. There are books about immigration, dysfunctional parents, foster kids, searching for spirituality in an ashram, coming under fire in Vietnam, losing a loved one, or any of dozens of themes that have been written elsewhere.

And yet, despite the similarities between your story and ones that have already been written, yours will be different because this one is about you. It’s written in your voice, through your perspective, with the particular characters in your life, and the beliefs that sustained you or pulled you astray. All the things that make your life unique will make your memoir unique. By telling your own story, and then publishing it so others can read it, you take your place on the shelf amidst the rest of the authentic life story literature of the twenty-first century.

Notes
One of the first memoirs I reviewed for my blog was about the search for identity by another young man with mixed race parents, “Dreams of Our Fathers” by Barack Obama.

Essay about James McBride’s search for identity in “Color of Water”
An essay about Joan Rivers’ tenacity in “Enter Talking”

Essay about Steve Martin’s fame in “Born Standing Up”

Essay about two memoirs by an addicted son and his father, click here.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

5 thoughts on “Is memoir a genre? Consider these matched pairs.

  1. Jerry, this is such a thoughtful way of approaching memoir–what it is, and also illustrating what it isn’t. The one comment I would add, however, is that if a memoir is about a traumatic, painful subject, such as childhood sexual abuse, I was advised to sprinkle reflection from the “now” perspective in with the story in order to relieve some of the pain and tension the reader might be feeling.
    Karen

  2. Very nice post. I read Steve Martin’s memoir and enjoyed it very much. I admire him as much or more for his writing ability than his comedic roles. 🙂

    I’ve begun a memoir and your post got me thinking of how I could approach my subject. It’s also given me the encouragement I need. Thanks!

  3. Excellent work. I’m especially drawn to the arc of character development from the angle of how the writing, itself, can change the memoir writer’s perspective on life, and especially the possibility for transformative healing.

    Childhood memories are laid down with the faculties of the child we were, shaping who we become as adults. As memoirists, we revisit these memories from the adult perspective and become enlightened, opening doors of fulfilling new possibility for the balance of our time on earth. THIS is what I find exciting, and it’s what I look for in a memeoir.

  4. Steinbeck’s biography of Ed Ricketts was indirectly autobiographical because of his close relationship with Ed. In the following quote from STEINBECK: A LIFE IN LETTERS, John reveals the struggle he had with memory…
    “…I had to go back in my own memory to a time I had fogotten. Many things came back–warped no doubt and changed and yet strangely whole with their feelings and colorings. I would not have them back–not any of them no matter how good. And some were very good. A year ago I saw a good deal of Carol [his first wife]. I like her but I had fogotten why we had to separate.”
    (When John was married to Carol she had a highly public flirtation in Monterrey with Joseph Cambell, the later author who became famous for his mythology work. They’d met at one of Ricketts’ famous blowout parties, while John was upstairs writing, no doubt.)

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