These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

This article continues the series inspired by Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness about raising her daughter through a maddening cycle of rebellion. For the first article in the series, click here

Rachel Pruchno wrote her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, at the intersection between a memoir and a biography. As a memoir, it is a first person account of a mother trying to raise a troubled daughter. As a biography, it records in detail that daughter’s journey through the first 18 years of life. This hybrid approach to memoir writing provides an important example of a structure that has been used by other memoirs and might give you some ideas about how to write yours.

All of us have intimate, long term relationships, for example, with parents, siblings, partners, friends, children, and colleagues. In many memoirs, these characters slip into the background. A husband or mother might be mentioned but never even have a speaking role in the drama. Other memoirs promote these characters into the limelight, sharing the stage, or sometimes even turning the stage over to the other character entirely.

Here’s an example of a memoir that focuses so much attention on the central figure that the author becomes almost invisible. In the memoir, Reading my Father, Alexandra Styron tells the story of her father, the famous novelist William Styron. She herself plays a minor role. Miranda Seymour’s memoir Thrumpton Hall is also mainly about her father. She tells of his obsession with his English Country estate, and in the process, allows us to see both her father and the fate of the gentry in the twentieth century. But we don’t learn much about her.

Some memoirs hover in the space between the two people. When James McBride attempted to figure out his heritage, his memoir Color of Water investigated his mother’s life as a Jew growing up in the south before she married a black man and moved up north. The memoir is about the son’s attempt to find his own truths, by learning more about hers.

A Dark and Troubling Journey

Rachel Pruchno’s story is a far more complex application of the “memoir as a biography” – As her daughter’s story proceeds, we are forced to face the fact that the person at the center of the story is so disturbing, we actually need a bridge back to sanity. And we use the storyteller as that bridge.

To stay hopeful, we readers are accustomed to link our destinies to the sane characters who walk away from the rubble. In the classic novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville, readers maintain sanity by sticking with the chronicler, Ishmael, rather than the crazy main character, Ahab. Similarly, in Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the teller of the tale offers the reader a bridge from the despair of the story to the survival of the storyteller.

Most of the memoir, Surrounded by Madness is about Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s out-of-control behavior, and a mother who constantly strives to help the daughter get back on track. Just as in Moby Dick and Heart of Darkness, the final truth rests with the storyteller, rather than with the story’s central character.

In another example, Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, the initial story is about the life of her son, a brilliant young musician. As he falls prey to Bipolar Disorder, the emphasis shifts from raising him to trying to save him. Unlike Rachel Pruchno’s Surrounded by Madness, the breakdown occurs early enough for readers to gain a clear understanding of what happens next. After her son’s suicide the memoir is all about the mother’s grieving and growing. In this sense, only the first part of the book is semi-biographical, and the second part is a hundred percent memoir.

More Approaches to the Memoir and Biography Hybrid

Many memoir writers are curious to learn the stories of their parents’ earlier lives. I’ve already mentioned Alexandra Styron’s portrayal of her famous father in Reading My Father. As a youngest child, rarely invited into the private life of her father, she saw his fame from a distance. To learn about him, she studied his papers, similar to the way any historian would have learned about him. And Miranda Seymour, author of Thrumpton Hall, also researched her father’s life by reviewing his diary. James McBride’s research in Color of Water feels like the work of a drowning man, who can only be saved by figuring out his mother. Setting aside for a moment that Barak Obama is president of the United States, his memoir Dreams of Our Fathers captures a young man’s thirst to understand his roots. All of these authors invested years of creative research and writing to make better sense of their parents.

Karen Fisher Alaniz is another daughter who tries to understand her father. She discovers  he has been so secretive about his World War II experiences because of the fact that he was involved in military secrets, and even half a century after the classified information could be used by the enemy, he still felt constrained by orders. The memoir, Breaking the Code, is a fascinating example of the way secrets separate people. The author’s instinct to break through the secrets in the final years of her father’s life offers a beautiful demonstration of that curiosity many of us feel about the lives of our parents.

In another story by a daughter, Susan Erikson Bloland grew up feeling jealous and ashamed by the fact that the public knew her father better than she did. Her memoir In the Shadow of Fame is not so much about the famous psychologist Erik Erikson as it is about the damaging effects of fame on the self esteem of the other members of the family.

Some writers want so badly to tell their parent’s story they create ghost written accounts. These first person “memoirs”, written by children in the voice of the parent, provide an extreme example of a child’s desire to understand a parent’s earlier life. Cherry Blossoms in Twilight by Linda Austen, is a ghost written account of a woman growing up in Japan before World War II, marrying an American serviceman, and moving to the United States. And Eaves of Heaven was written by Andrew X. Pham as a ghost-written memoir about his father’s life growing up in Vietnam, surviving the hardships of colonialism, rebellion, and imprisonment. Both stories were based on extensive interviews.

Friend or Companion

When memoirs are about a friend, spouse or companion, the story is more a biography of the relationship than of the person. For example, Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell is as much about the friendship between two women as it is about the other woman. In a more troubling memoir about a relationship, Crazy Love by Leslie Morgan Steiner is about her relationship with an abusive husband.

In two memoirs, a wife has lost a husband, and tells about that relationship from beginning to end. Again in a Heartbeat by Susan Weidener is the biography of her relationship with her husband, from courtship, to his early demise, and then through her grieving. Naked: Stripped by a Man and Hurricane Katrina by Julie Freed includes a biography of her relationship with her husband, and then her struggle to make sense of that relationship after he leaves her.

An unusual account of a relationship is Father Joe, The Man Who Saved My Faith by Tony Hendra. The memoir is the relationship between Hendra and his spiritual mentor. Like any memoir, it provides an opportunity to share a slice of life that readers might not have experienced. Tony Hendra’s mentor is a monk, and the memoir provides a peek into a monastery, a sort of atavistic example of an ancient tradition of men living apart and devoting their lives to God.

The Other Character Is Not Always Human

Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg is by the famous researcher of a famous parrot. Pepperberg’s groundbreaking research into the linguistic aptitude of the parrot escaped the limits of scientific journals and went public, giving the world insight into the uncanny brilliance of the African Gray parrot. The memoir offers fascinating a glimpse into the personal relationship between the two creatures.

Similarly Marley and Me by John Grogan tells the story of a relationship with a dog. The ensemble cast includes the whole family, but throughout the story, it’s clear that the dog is the star.

Less famously, Oogie, a Dog Only a Family Could Love by Larry Levin creates a similar effect. This memoir adds gravitas to dog ownership by mixing in issues of dog fighting, and also creating a loving environment for two adopted boys.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan is about a veteran who suffers from PTSD and how his relationship to a service dog helps him regain his dignity. Saddled by Susan Richards is a memoir about her life, with an emphasis on the healing effects of caring for her horse.

Conclusion

As you develop ideas about your own memoir in progress, consider your other characters. Perhaps one of them deserves top billing in the title, or in a different telling of the same story, you could portray the character’s influence from offstage. Or you might find that your best story is a hybrid, hovering between yourself and the other character or switching from one to the other. When Rachel Pruchno started writing her memoir, Surrounded by Madness, she focused almost entirely on her daughter. As the story reached a conclusion, the focus shifted, and suddenly the author took center stage. Similarly, Madeline Sharples first wrote about her son, and then shifted emphasis to herself. These creative decisions are determined both by the specific events of your life and by your goals in writing your memoir. By reviewing the wide range of possible structures offered by memoirs you read, you can open your imagination to the story that best expresses who you are and what story you want to share with the world.

Writing Prompt

What one main character in your memoir might zoom up into center stage? Write a synopsis of the memoir as if it was about this one other character, or about the relationship with this person.

Notes
Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website
Madeline Sharple’s website
Susan Weidener’s website
Karen Fisher Alaniz’s website
Julie Freed’s website

 

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4 thoughts on “These Memoirs Are Similar to Biographies

  1. Thank you, Jerry, for again and very generously mentioning my memoir in this post. The information you give here is so valuable. I never thought of the difference between biography and straight memoir as I wrote Leaving the Hall Light On.

  2. Thank you for this post. I think a memoir is more interesting if the reader learns about more than the main character. I’m working on a first person memoir – in order to get the other people’s stories in, I have to be very creative. I’ve had my mother tell me her experience as a live-in maid. My father gave a testimony in a church (first time I learned anything of his childhood), I’ve used photos in my niece’s room, etc. Readers want to know the backgrounds of the people affecting the lives of the main character. I appreciate your memoir posts.

  3. You offer a wealth of knowledge from your vast reading and offer so much help on that difficult subject of structure. Thank you!

  4. Thanks Frances. I’m so glad you find value in it.

    Heather, thanks for your comment. Yes, doing research on other characters is a great way to flesh them in. Good luck with your memoir writing. Isn’t it a fascinating project to learn all these things about the characters in your own life?

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

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