Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

by Jerry Waxler

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

Great literature provides insights into true genius through the ages, but in this second of a three part essay, I claim that a far better way to raise young people is to assign  memoirs. Click here to read part 1.

Turning toward memoir as a more accessible approach to literature

In my late teens, I opened my heart and mind to the lessons contained in great literature. Over the next few years, brilliant authors like Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Samuel Beckett convinced me that adults are stupid and life sucks. These observations fueled my horror, and I pulled farther and farther away from adult life, convinced that it was all wrong, and young people were going to need to reinvent civilization. Even though great literature was unravelling my sanity, I continued drinking it in, like an addict, unaware that the substance giving me pleasure was also destroying me.

Tragically, the destructive influence of great literature didn’t stop my literature professors from supplying more. Looking back, I don’t blame them for wanting to me read these works of great literary merit. However, looking forward, I think young readers today can tap into a far more constructive source of wisdom.

In the twenty-first century, the Memoir Revolution allows adults to pass wisdom to the next generation, without the distortions and exaggerations of invented worlds and fictitious circumstances. Even though memoirs are crafted to maximize dramatic intensity, their greatness does not result from metaphor and hyperbole, to be picked apart in search of the finest phrase. The genius of this genre arises from its ability to immerse the reader in a slice of the author’s actual experience. If any picking apart is warranted, it would be to learn more about how the story can help readers make better sense of life.

To Grow Up, We Must Create Our Own Stories

To grow from child to adult, every one of us must construct stories of ourselves. Our initial co-writers in this endeavor are our parents, siblings, and caregivers. As we grow, we take into account glances from strangers, or watching our parents interact with outsiders. When we go to school, our interactions with teachers and students influence our self-understanding. And throughout the years, see ourselves reflected in the books, movies and television shows of our culture.

From this accumulated information, we construct a self-image that looks a lot like a story. Story is an ancient form of thought in which a protagonist seeks the solution to some problem. Reaching inexorably toward that goal, the hero must press, past obstacles toward an answer. By shaping our self-images in this form, we develop our own sense of confidence and purpose, providing ourselves with a roadmap for the future.

Literature professors could provide an enormous service by showing us how to apply well-crafted stories as models that would enable us to improve the shape of our own. But their charter until now has been focused on the power of story for its own sake. The Memoir Revolution offers them an opportunity to combine their love for literature with their charter to pass along the narrative art of civilization.

The memoirs on my shelves contain hundreds of brilliant life lessons, gained by authors through the course of their lives. By reading these memoirs, I’ve learned about life through each author’s eyes. Each memoir demonstrates the alchemy of converting the senselessness of real life into the elegant, universally admired elixir of Story. Now, all that needs to happen is for literature professors to discover the power of the memoir. The teachers can fulfill their original charter, by helping students learn the elegant structure of a well-told story. At the same time, the students can immerse themselves in the author’s life, learning features and insights about a wide variety of human experiences.

A Memoir Conveys Clear, Important Truths about Launching

A great example of a memoir that helps define a young person’s adjustment to adult life is New York Mormon Regional Halloween Dance. In it, author Elna Baker pursues the fundamental mission of trying to grow into adulthood. Compare the lessons Elna Baker learned about growing up with the books that influenced me as a young man.

Henry Miller’s characters remain trapped in the never-fulfilled state of sexuality. Elna Baker tries to understand how modern people use sexuality in their quest for mutual commitment.

In The Great Gatsby, the hero tries to learn about life from a man whose money flows from an exaggerated ocean of wealth. Elna Baker’s memoir is about the realistic challenge of developing competencies in order to earn a living.

In Razor’s Edge, Somerset Maugham’s character travels to remote regions to understand his relationship with spirituality. Elna Baker leaves home, not to escape her responsibilities but to accept them, hoping to find her truths in the same place she earns her living

Growing up requires the power of choosing

In New York Mormon, Elna Baker experiments, learns from the results, and takes the next step, informed by the last. This healthy approach to life sounds so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning, and yet when I was a young man, I immersed myself in an endless series of novels in which the “heroes” were trapped by indecision, trying to make sense of an overwhelming world. By identifying with them, I was undermining my will to grow up. As a result, I made what at the time seemed like a rational choice. I “dropped out,” attempting to solve the problem of adulthood by refusing to become one.

If, as a young man, I had been reading memoirs like Elna Baker’s I would have been inspired by her willingness to make choices. She does not fight against adulthood. Instead, she strives to make the most of it. Her proactive approach to acquiring the competencies of adulthood offer more guidance in one book than my years of exploring and studying the literary canon ever did.

Elna Baker represents a generation of memoir heroes who act with purpose, learn to move toward the next step, and take notes so they can pay their stories forward to those of us who need to travel that journey ourselves.

In the third part of this essay, I will tie together educational, scientific, and literary trends that suggest our collective will is already moving in the direction of using Story to help us learn to be social.

Notes

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

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

4 thoughts on “Why Memoirs are Better Than Literature Part 2

  1. Jerry: I would not give up on literature. For example, when Beckett writes, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better,” it seems to me he is not sending a message of despair but (with his characteristic comedy) urging us to continue on. When Nick Carraway (in GATSBY) returns to the Midwest, he does not seem down and out, but he gives us a lot to think about. When Maugham sends his protagonist on a spiritual quest, he opens up a world worth considerable self-reflection. When Kafka writes, he seems always to break that ice surrounding the beat of the human heart. Literature offers the complexity and ambiguity of the human condition, so it reminds us that what we take for granted can be seen as strange and wonderful, worthy of our close attention. The best memoirs might do this as well, I agree, but why give up on literature as a result?

  2. Hi Bob,

    Thanks for your thought provoking question! I love all the books I mentioned, and feel that my life is richer for having read them.The authors have taken me deep into the fascinating worlds they created, and I felt hypnotized by them, along with generations of literature loves. So I don’t mean to sound like I’m “against” them. My conversation is about extending the agenda of literature professors. When Azar Nafisi taught her young Iranian students about Nabokov’s Lolita, or Erin Gruwell taught her students about Romeo and Juliet their agenda was focused by a blindingly bright compassion to help their students understand how to grow up. I would like a lot more of that.

    When Gruwell wanted to extend her message that Story can move past the page and into her student’s lives, she brought in live human beings who were involved in famous diaries. And then she invited her students to see how their own lives could be elevated when written and then shared.

    Literature professors and the literature they love are admirable in a number of ways – they teach us the heights that literary arts can achieve, they stretch young minds to go farther and farther, almost without limit, into the power of Story to communicate abstract subtle human truths.

    Perhaps many young people are able to make the leap from say Kafka to the joy of literature, but for me, it was a gateway drug into despair. Even Dickens, in my glorious joy and delicious love for his language, only reminded me that adults are inscrutable and life is hard.

    And perhaps there are many English teachers who feel called to use literature to help young people grow up. But I suspect that Freedom Writers Diary was a hit because it was an exception rather than a rule.

    I see memoirs as a way to bridge that gap between literature and life. When reading memoirs, even ones of exceptional literary value, there are embedded within it the lessons of real life. Each memoir author has had to travel a long, hard, creative journey to challenge themselves to find the story structure within real life. By sharing those stories with students, literature teachers can serve the dual purpose -transforming themselves from being guides into the workings of the book to guides into the working of life itself.

    I hope this helps clarify my position. I love your questions and the notion that this is an unsolvable dilemma. Keeping it open as a dilemma keeps it interesting. 🙂

    Best wishes,
    Jerry Waxler

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