Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?

by Jerry Waxler

This is the fourth part of my essay about Dawn Novotny’s memoir, “Ragdoll Redeemed: Living in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe.” Click here to read part one

If the only books you read are ones you find in the bookstore, you might conclude that memoir writers limit their attention to small segments of life. However, many aspiring memoir writers who attend my writing workshops have a much broader agenda. They are interested in discovering the meaning of their entire lives and are trying to envision the character arc not just across a few years, but across decades.

Unfortunately, this desire to portray the panorama of a life violates a central mandate of the memoir genre. According to agents, editors, and teachers, a memoir should be about a slice of life, preferably a short one. According to these rules, if you include too much, for example including your childhood and adulthood in the same story, you bump up against the label “autobiography” which supposedly guarantees a rejection.

I have heard fiction writing teachers say “the less backstory the better,” and that “you always need less backstory than you think you do.” Modern readers supposedly are too impatient to stick with a character for too long. The trend toward shorter, tighter time frames reaches a crescendo in the hit television series, 24. Each one-hour episode chronicles the events of an hour in story-time.

This was not always the case. In early versions of the novel, authors were allowed to trace the origins of their characters. In one of my favorite novels Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, the power of the story arises from the pressures that build up across decades. And Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders traces the course of the protagonist’s whole life.

Now, as increasing numbers of people are drawn by the allure of the memoir revolution, we are beginning to notice that this literary form can help us make sense of who we are and where we’ve been. Memoirs are a perfect place to tie together the chapters of your life, to see how one thing led to another, and to discover the wisdom hidden within our own experience. As we look back across decades and try to capture their psychological complexity, the backstory is crucial.

Our reading preferences are beginning to reveal this awakening curiosity. Blockbusters such as Angela’s Ashes and Glass Castle, provide intimate insight into the way their protagonists grow up. Those books and others like them helped launch the memoir revolution. And another reading trend provides even more proof that we are interested in the way people emerge into adulthood. Harry Potter, one of the bestselling stories of all time, was about a young person Coming of Age. He had so much to figure out, and so do we. Apparently, we collectively crave deeper understanding of this process.

I recently found a memoir Ragdoll Redeemed: Growing Up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe by Dawn Novotny that demonstrates this longer search for meaning. By including her whole life, Novotny showed me how all the parts fit together. If she had limited her story just to the neglect and abuse during childhood, I would never have learned how that childhood led to her failed marriages. If she only wrote about her troubled young adulthood, I would never have understood the period of growth and wisdom that came later. Over this longer time frame, she portrayed a compelling dramatic arc.

By including all the stages of her life, Novotny allowed me to experience her fascinating journey, from shame, to troubles, to redemption. These long-term developments are among the most satisfying rewards of lifestory reading and writing, and I’m glad Ragdoll Redeemed extended beyond the “standard” definition of memoir.

Tips for your Memoir

When you first attempt to write the story of your life, you may be tempted to follow Dawn Novotny’s lead and include the whole thing. I encourage you to submit to that temptation, at least for early drafts. Once you record the whole thing on paper, you have a number of options.

For example, this longer version could provide wonderful raw material from which to find a shorter segment with a tighter focus. Or you could break it into sequential volumes, the way Frank McCourt did with Angela’s Ashes and Tis, or the way Mary Karr did with Liar’s Club and Cherry, or the way Haven Kimmel did with A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch. Or perhaps you will be so excited to have been through this creative process, you will decide to ignore the rules and publish it in its entirety.

You don’t need to decide now. By the time you are ready, perhaps the industry will change, as it always does. Perhaps some memoir of a complete life will cross over and become a New York Times bestseller and establish the validity of Life Reviews as a sub-genre, and then publishers will be just as interested in the story of your lifetime as you are.


Other memoirs from my reading list that offer a life review: Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep about his attempt to understand his three failed marriages. Harry Bernstein’s Golden Willow about the journey of his 67 years of marriage. Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man recaps his journey as a teacher. And Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed about a lifetime journey as an actor.

Dawn Novotny, RagDoll Redeemed: Growing up in the Shadow of Marilyn Monroe

Dawn Novotny’s blog and home page

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

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

9 thoughts on “Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subgenre?

  1. This is interesting. A comment I’ve heard many times about my mother’s WWII Japan memoir is that it is too short – readers wanted me to continue the story up to current times to see what happened to my mother. But, I thought that was a different story, one in a different country and with a different audience. It would be best as a sequel, though, for more mature audiences, vs the family-friendly original.

    There is an art to including bits of backstory rather than long sections or starting from the very beginning. This involves using only enough to understand character behavior, but not too much to distract from the main storyline. Boyd did a great job with this.

  2. This sort of thing only bothers people who think their writing is somehow incomplete unless it reaches the masses. I feel it is more important to reach yourself when you are writing. My own memoir, which covers the first sixty years of my life, is collecting lots of rejection letters, probably for the reasons you mention. But the people who really matter have already read it, and bringing it together did me more good than any other self-help project I ever did.

  3. Oh, there is absolutely an art, and the longer I work at storytelling the more I respect the storyteller’s art.

    You make a good point about separating the story along some well-defined line. If you can find such a line, you might have a perfect container for your story. And then again, you might need to cross the threshold between two worlds.

    Zlata’s Diary, by Zlata Filopovic stopped when her family left Sarajevo. Angela’s Ashes ended when Frank McCourt landed in New York. Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood traveled back and forth across the ocean as she tried to sort out her identity. It depends on the story.


  4. Jerry,

    Thank you for the great article. You bring up a very good point in this post.

    When I began putting my story together, I started writing it from the beginning, my childhood, and built up to the present time, in my outline anyways. At the same time I started doing some research about memoir writing and publishing and quickly realized the fact that you mentioned here (publishers want memoirs of only a slice of a life).

    After seeing that I significantly narrowed down the story to about 6 – 10 years, when all of the action occured. I can definitely see why memoirs with a small time frame with lots of action are more appealing to a mainstream audience than a story of an entire life. Only writing about that small time period, however, limits me from finding the meaning in why everything happened the way it did.

    I love your idea of writing it from childhood to the present on the original draft and then pick out a slice of that if mainstream publishing is what you are looking for.

    I think a lot more healing would come from looking at and exploring the whole picture.

    Thanks again for the great post.

  5. Thanks, Aaron. This whole journey to find your own story is a long one, with many pitfalls. As the mountain climbers say, you have to gain a lot of elevation along the way.

    I’m going to write another article about a method that has been coming up lately in which authors use a back and forth strategy telling their childhood and then a later period in alternate segments: The Orchard by Theresa Weil, Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham and Riding the Bus with My Sister by Rachel Simon. These were all critically acclaimed. But still, for the first time memoir writer, chronological order is the best, easiest, clearest way to get it down, and then the advanced techniques can be applied later. I wish you success with your work.


  6. Gene, Thanks for the comment. It is awesome that you have put the whole thing down, and found healing from the project. And very brave to send it out and brave rejection. One of my most bracing quotes of all time is Rumi’s statement that “failure is the key to the kingdom” – I think for a writer, rejection is the key. Like the hero who must undergo “death” to reach the goal, I think that rejection is a mini-death that creates a deeper, more powerful life. I feel a great surge of creative effort when I put myself out there and risk rejection. That surge takes us to a higher level.


  7. Jerry–having just read Boyd Lemon’s “Digging Deep,” I think he upholds the greatest talent in going back and forth from past to present and he does it beautifully, without losing his story–very smooth transitions. Struggling with the ‘how’ of my memoir, the ‘what’ becomes clearer under that very scrutiny of past and present. I have to believe that if it makes more sense for me as the author, to write in that way, it will help the reader better understand the ‘thrust’ of my memoir.
    Thank you for this post, Jerry, once again, filled with helpful nuggets in this sometimes complicated and misunderstood genre of memoir. If one’s whole life is needed to tell the story, that’s the way to go. If not, recognize that and go from there. We as writers must figure out how to tell our story, first for us, then for the reader. A fine line indeed . . .

  8. Judy, you raise a great point about the artfulness of Boyd Lemon’s narrative. In order to use any technique, you have to learn how to execute it well. Boyd’s narrative structure uses yet another specialized technique: the author in search of past truths. Another excellent example of this method is Tracy Seeley’s Ruby Slippers.


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