by Jerry Waxler
I began reading memoirs in the early 2000s for what I thought was a simple reason. I wanted to learn how to write my own. I soon realized that memoirs opened me to a whole universe of personal experience, as seen through the author’s eyes. And there was an extra dimension to this learning bonanza. Each one of these authors had spent years turning life into a readable story. I became a student of each book.
To share what I learned, I began writing a blog, and once I realized I had an audience, I became more diligent about communicating my thoughts. I spent hours on each book, attempting to sort out my ideas. After a few years, this research and passion turned into the basis for my book about the memoir wave, what I came to call the Memoir Revolution.
As my memoir shelves overflowed, I noticed that my mind automatically began gathering together books on similar subjects. For example, the books about growing up started to feel like a subgenre. When I wrote about one, I tended to think about how it compared with other books in its category. I noticed other groupings, such as books about recovering from grief. The more I read, the more categories I noticed. There were books about children trying to understand their parents and others parents trying to understand their children, books about travel, books about overcoming trauma, and so on.
By lingering on each memoir, and considering how it related to other books of a similar vein, I was able to draw additional lessons, and go deeper into my understanding of that particular individual in that particular set of circumstances. Often, I saw how the shape of the memoir was influenced by the dramatic forces at play in that person’s life. I extended my notion of “types” to include not just the subject matter of a memoir, but also the structure.
For example, most coming of age stories are written in the child’s voice, as if the story was being told in present tense. For example, Linda Joy Myers Don’t Call Me Mother operates from the young person’s point of view. In some cases, a person might need to tell the story as an adult in search of her past. A.M Homes discovered her biological parents and her memoir is a sleuthing story, trying to find the truth about her past. Judy Mandel’s memoir Replacement Child includes reconstructed accounts of events just before she was born. In this way, each of these three memoirs is about a girl growing up and trying to find herself, but each one is a different “type” in the way it is written.
I don’t mean to imply that categorizing memoirs trivializes the uniqueness of their author’s experience. Even though two memoirs are the same “type”, author’s personality, voice, and variations in the time and place and characters all shine through, making each book a unique experience.
As an illustration of how varied memoirs can be within one “type” consider a few of the variations on Coming of Age: a girl abandoned by her mother in the Midwest (Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers), a girl growing up in the Midwest grieving a brother killed in a tragic accident (Name All the Animals by Alison Smith), a girl whose sister was killed before she was born and she grows up in her deceased sister’s shadow (Replacement Child by Judy Mandel), a girl growing up orphaned in New York, raised by her two uncles (Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham), a girl who ran away from an abusive home and lived in a shelter (Girl Bomb by Janice Erlbaum), a boy who grew up in a Christian commune in Europe (Crazy for God by Frank Schaeffer).
Another “type” of memoir is about recovering from setbacks. These too would have some similarities (a person’s life is derailed in some way, and then must climb back to higher ground, find courage, make renewed sense of life). Like all memoirs, books of this “type” would also have enormous individual variation. Some of these would be about reclaiming dignity after the loss of a loved one. Others would be about maintaining your own mental health while caring for someone with a debilitating illness. Other shelves would be about recovering from child abuse, combat trauma, rape, mental illness, or physical disease.
Another intriguing type of memoir are about cultural mixing. Millions of us must adapt to life in a different country, as immigrants ex-pats, or exiles. And many millions more are descended from parents or grandparents who have moved from one country to another. Stories of cultural mixing are rich in their inquiry into discovering one’s true self.
Even though a memoir is a particular “type,” in almost every case, there are several things going on inside each memoir. Some memoirs about Coming of Age are also about grieving. Others are also about cultural mixing. (Funny in Farsi by Firoozeh Dumas). Some travel memoirs are really about raising a family (Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh). Some books about disease are also about spirituality (My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor). Books about caregiving are also about family relationships (Inside the Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius, Mothering Mother by Carol Odell, 100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman).
To take advantage of these observations about the type of a memoir, think of writing a memoir from two vantage points. In one vantage point, enter into the story in a sort of “writer’s hypnosis” in which you are discovering your experience and shaping it into an interesting story.. Allow your mind to slip inside the timeframe of the story and provide the reader with the unique, emotional power of your circumstances, environment, and your own thoughts and reactions. The way you react to situations will be the most unique thing in your book.
The second vantage point is from the reader’s point of view. When a reader looks at a book from the outside, they will wonder “what sort of journey is this book going take me on?” Naturally you can’t tell them the whole story in the blurb, so you have to imply and hint and raise some expectation. By learning how to raise those expectations you increase the likelihood that they will pick up the book and begin reading. By learning to raise the stakes and fulfill those expectations, you will reward your reader with an interesting experience they enjoy, and recommend to their friends.