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

 

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

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

Bookstores provide valuable information for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

According to successful author, Jonathan Maberry, from whom I have taken many writing courses, “despite the power of online marketing, bookstores still provide vital information to any writer who wants to get their work into print. By exploring bookstores, you can find what’s hot and get ideas for your own work.” Last year, to learn more about memoirs, I followed his advice and went to the bookstore.

I was disappointed to see books written by people about themselves muddled together with books written by historians or celebrity watchers. The Biography and Memoir section contained mainly books about kings, presidents, generals, and movie stars, interspersed with some blockbuster memoirs like Tobias Wolff’s “This Boys Life” and Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” I had little interest in Biographies at the time, and found it clumsy to pick through the shelves to find the few memoirs.

However, since that first visit, memoirs have gained considerable respect from booksellers. Every time I go to the store, there are one or two fewer biographies, and one or two more memoirs. In fact, it’s now closer to an even mix, and memoirs have even pulled out in front with a table in the aisle devoted to the latest offerings.

For example, this week I picked up “A Three Dog Life,” by Abigail Thomas, about a woman’s relationship to a husband who has lost his mind in a car crash. Being with him is similar to living with someone who has the cognitive deficits of Alzheimer’s. But unlike Alzheimer’s, his tragedy happened in an instant, shifting her role overnight from a loving partner to fulltime caregiver. It’s a human tragedy both frightening and compelling, and the book offers me exactly what I seek from memoirs: an opportunity to emotionally share a life outside my personal experience.

I was helped in my purchasing decision by a testimonial on the front cover from none other than the king of the bookstores, Stephen King himself, who called it “the best memoir I have ever read.” His recommendation pushed me to the next step and I opened the book to check out the writing. I found it to be haunting and compelling. So I paid for it.

If you want to write for the public, try this as an exercise. When you walk into a book store, take advantage of that out-of-body training you received in astral-projection school. Float up a few feet and watch yourself scanning the shelves. Which ones catch your eye? Why did you reach out and pick one up? Which part of the cover copy gets you to read further or put it back? Use these observations to imagine the way you would present your own story. If you can see yourself picking up your own book and wanting to know more, your observations provide valuable information about how to achieve success.

After browsing the memoir and biography section, I strolled over to the books about writing. (I’ve never understood why they call this section “Reference” but that’s often the way it is.) There I scored another hit. Unlike last year, when the books about writing a memoir were skimpy (I recall seeing only one), this time I saw a half a dozen, another indication that this trend in publishing continues to grow. While browsing, I stumbled across an interesting looking book called “How to do Biography,” by Nigel Hamilton. This turns out to be a wonderful find. (“Luck favors the industrious,” or something like that.)

While I’ve been annoyed with all those biographies on the “Memoir and Biography” shelf, I’ve recently become more interested in learning what those authors can teach me. They must have an enormous amount of information about how to turn a life into a story. Of course, since biographies are written by someone else, they don’t have the same introspective slant. And since the genre often tends more towards historical facts than towards story telling, there are other differences. But surely there are many areas of overlap.

To help me understand this process, I’ve joined the Association of Personal Historians, an organization whose charter is to help other people tell their story. Personal historians, by helping someone write their memoir, live somewhere in the middle between the two genres. Joining the organization will give me access to their shared expertise. And it looks like this book “How to Do Biography” is going to offer an overview of the whole subject. From the first few chapters which I have already devoured, it appears to be accessible, and informative, offering history and insights into the whole project of life-into-story, including chapters on autobiography and memoir.

Finally, I browsed the magazine rack, and to my surprise scored again. There was a magazine in the literary section with the peculiarly punctuated title of “Memoir, (and).” This is a journal devoted to memoir writing, including poetry, photography, essays, and so on. This was proof that the trend towards memoirs continues to grow, and the resources and outlets are richer than ever. Hopefully my purchases will help keep my local bricks and mortar bookstore open, so I can go and actually touch books, open them, and see which ones I like.