Why memoirs are becoming so popular

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

Carol O’Dell has never been in headlines. She was an ordinary woman raising a family when her mom’s mind started failing. When O’Dell asked her mother to move in, their relationship became laced with the humiliation and confusion of dementia, madness in the midst of normalcy. It’s a story worth knowing for millions of people in the sandwich generation. To learn more about it, read her memoir called Mothering Mother. And there’s another lesson you can learn from O’Dell’s book. If you think your own life is not famous enough to be worth reading, take another look at what is happening to the memoir genre. You don’t have to be spectacular. You just need to be you, and find the story in your experience.

For proof that people want to know about each other, stand in the checkout line at your local supermarket, look around at the ordinary people. You could reach out and touch them, if you wanted to get smacked, and yet you know absolutely nothing about them and they know nothing about you. Most of us prefer it that way, trying to blend in so we won’t stand out. Then, turn around, to see, also within reach, the tabloid racks, covered with photos of celebrities entering or leaving rehab, getting married and getting divorced. An entire industry brings their private lives into the supermarket, a testimony to the fact that people are curious about other people.

But why should we want to know so much about these particular people who have thrust themselves into the public eye?? All we learn from them is the artificially self-indulgent world of celebrity. Sometimes it’s fun but most of the time it’s plain sordid. I think we’re getting tired of limiting our curiosity to movie stars. I know I am. There is a whole world of people, and I want to learn who they are, what makes them work, how they feel, how they grow.

Apparently, I’m not alone in my desire to know about ordinary people. Look at the popularity of blogs, through which people share snips of our lives, pictures of our kids and pets, and what we did last night. Millions of people are reading this stuff. Memoirs are the next wave in this curiosity about each other. Memoirs let us go deeper, sharing what it was like to grow up, or to take care of someone in need, or to suffer a loss, or fight in a war. We can learn so much about each other through memoirs. It’s an exciting expansion of our ability to know the world.

Most of us only know the private lives of a few people; the ones in our family, and perhaps one or two close friends. Everyone else we see only in the fragments we come across in life situations or tales we share in conversations. As a therapist I hear more, but even in this environment memories arise in disjointed fragments, spread out over time, and not delivered in sequence. If any of them wanted me to really know about their lives, the best way would be to write their memoir.

It turns out that a memoir is by far the best way to find out what it’s like to be someone else. For example, Brooke Shield’s memoir Down Came the Rain, informed me about postpartum depression. Alice Sebold in Lucky informed me of the problems of coping with the aftermath of rape, an unmentionable topic if ever there was one. Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam takes me inside the experience of expecting and then raising a baby with Down Syndrome. William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness brings me face to face with the gore of war, of being shot at and watching friends die in front of you.

None of these topics are pleasant, and so, they don’t come up in polite conversation. And that’s precisely the reason I don’t know much about them. People don’t talk about these things, so how can I ever learn them? In fact, these topics are so unmentionable, people in these situations often feel isolated. But in memoirs, we can be frank. Writers record thoughts in private, and readers, also in private, enter the writer’s experience and learn what it’s like. If the information becomes too intense, they can take a break. No one has to react, offer platitudes, or hide their discomfort.

The insights from memoirs take me far beyond my experience, and far beyond my comfort zone. I would never have asked George Brummell what it was like to grow up black in the segregated south, starting to come of age in Korea, and then after being injured in Vietnam, starting over again, now blind. But I can read about it in his book Shades of Darkness. I wouldn’t know what it was like to be beaten by a stepfather, or to feel the other heartaches of a broken family the way I could by reading Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life. And while I might imagine what it was like for a daughter to take care of a mom with Alzheimer’s I would never have been able to see it so intimately as by reading Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother.

One of the powers of any good book is to invite the reader into a different world. Sometimes it’s sheer escape from our everyday life. But while we’re out of our world, what are we learning? I went through a decade when I was only reading murder mysteries. The battle between good and evil put me into a wonderful hypnotic state. But after years of escaping into the same type of world over and over, I was getting bored. Now that I’m reading memoirs, I not only get out of my own world. I also have a wonderful opportunity to enter other people’s worlds. By reading their lives, I understand a lot more about the people around me. One person’s story at a time, I’m finding that ordinary people at the checkout counter are much more interesting, varied, and offer many more lessons than the menagerie of celebrities facing me on the covers of tabloids.

Notes

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

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

13 thoughts on “Why memoirs are becoming so popular

  1. This is a great subject. I love memoir. And not just because I’ve written one (still in the process of shopping it to agents). I’ve always loved memoir. Like you, I find ordinary people’s lives fascinating. I find how they cope encouraging and at times terrifying.

    Karen (Lavinia from AW)

  2. I’m so happy you’re here! I’ve been writing in my memoir for over a year and continually fight the fear that it won’t be good enough. I found other memoirs as well that made me think I couldn’t compete. People like you give me new and exciting hope and I simply can’t w82 get back to my book and keep on go’n!

    Rhonda (rnning2wn from AW)

  3. Hi Rhonda,

    The appreciation is mutual. I’m delighted you are working on your memoir, and love that you are getting value from the blog. Writing a memoir is a long journey, and it’s easier to do with it company.

    Jerry

  4. I wrote my memoir but discovered it was too much as written and it dragged. I’ve been reading and studying on the genre and now have a much better feel for what needs to be changed, so I’m going to start again. I really appreciate all your comments and advice.

  5. I love your blog site. After four and a half years of hard work, my memoir, Vinyl Highway, Singing as Dick and Dee Dee was released. It was picked up by a national distributor in Spring, 2007 and is available in bookstores, Amazon.com, Barnes&Nobel.com, Googlebooks and on my website: http://www.dickanddeedee.com. Since the singing career covered the Sixties music scene, it brings back many fond memoires for people.
    Also on the site are some fun vintage videos of the act. Especially popular is the Scopitone video and Lightening Strikes (Batman and Robin), which was part of the last Shindig show ever taped.
    I’d like to go into greater detail about what it took to write and complete Vinyl Highway. What I thought would be a straight ahead process (beginning to middle to end) turned into a collage. I added things in the middle of the book after it was written, etc. I miss being in the creative process and want to start another memoir about the Seventies. I just heard today that a writer who wrote a biography on Abraham Lincoln worked on it for five years. When it was published, she said she mourned the loss of her buddy, Abraham. How personal a memoir (or biography in this case) is.
    Again, you have a great site.
    Dee Dee Phelps

  6. Hi Dee Dee,

    Thanks so much for your comment about your book. Your story is one of the reasons I started the blog, to give memory writers a place to share their experience. I’d love to hear more about your memoir, either in comments or in an interview. Stop back next week to see the interviews I’ll be publishing with memoir writer Carol O’Dell, author of Mothering Mother.

    Jerry

  7. I am happy others appreciate the memoirs of so called ordinary people.
    For the more of these I read the more I know we so called ordinary people have extraordinary things to tell that are perhaps unique to us,our time,our location and when we include our ancestry it becomes even more interesting,and worth knowing by others.
    I hope I with my limited experience in writing can take/hire your information/service as well as others and help my Father create a story structure around his finished memoir “give me them ol’ time memories”

    All the best with your blog

  8. I am glad I came across your website. After years of writing and researching, I was beginning to lose hope of ever getting my memoir published. But your site has renewed my determination to continue with what I started. Writing comes natural for me and I have an endless supply of words and ideas for stories. I have been a cartoonist and writer with a newspaper for over 20 years, publishing a variety of stories during that time. But I wanted to broaden my horizons and try my hand at getting some of my books published. While writing is easy for me, I find the publishing industry overwhelming. I have many abilities, but my disabilities tend to get in the way of my understanding the world of publishing. After straining my brain for years to comprehend this complex field, I was afraid I would develop another disorder. I’m sure the great writers of the past would find this new literary technology maddening. Benjamin Franklin would probably be insulted if he had to learn how to turn his memoir into an electronic document. Present day publishing is enough to intimidate a writer into retiring their pen, or packing away the keyboard. The publishing competition is overwhelming and when one is not a high profile person, has no connections, or financial resources, getting published becomes a challenge that can be exhausting. The healing properties of writing a personal memoir can be rewarding, but getting it published so one can share an important story is difficult. Writing my memoir was very therapeutic, but it may not have the same effect for someone else who reads it. Still, it’s an important story worth sharing and I’m determined to get it published. I’m sure researching your site will help. Sincerely, Julie

  9. Hi Julie,

    Thanks so much for your praise. I’m glad you are finding value here. And thanks for sharing your passion. While you find the blog inspiring, I find your comment inspiring. That’s the key point of the blog. The internet has opened the most remarkable doors – it’s magic when you really think about it – we’ve created a micro-community in the “ether.” Best wishes with your publishing goals.

    Jerry

  10. I actually had no intentions of writing my memoir,but a great friend who is a successful writer,nearly forced me to do it.His reasoning was that he knew me pretty well,and knew what the average reader would be interested in, and my story was exactly that.
    I rationalized in my mind, that even if he was wrong,writing my life story would be a wonderful diary for my kids and their kids, receiving accurate information of their grand pop.
    I had no idea that it would be picked up by LA Times,The Italian American Press and many other reviewes.
    It has given me joy to be invited to speak at a number of Universities,Public Libraries and a number of groups.
    I was even the key speaker at The Italian Cultural Society of Washington,DC. and also spoke at Fort Belvoir.
    There is nothing better than to personalize a copy of your book and sending it to a stranger that all of a sudden is interested in your life experiences.
    I truly enjoy it.

  11. Thank you so much for your thoughts on memoirs. I have one in my trunks that’ it’s almost finished but the self doubt was killing me in the sense that I felt people wouldn’t be interested in an average person although I consider I had an extraordinary life but I’m not a celebrity, I’m not famous, and you have given me confidence to continue. You have reinforced my belief that every life is worthwhile and every life is an important journey, and I will fight very hard to get mine published.

  12. Wow, I’m writing a paper about memory and memoir in preparation for my thesis which will be a creative piece, namely, my memoir and the accompanying exegesis. I’m so surprised to find this site and have some of my questions about the value of and fascination with memoir. Good luck all.

  13. I am extremely proud becoming a Naturalized American Citizen.

    I came to America from Rome,Italy as a ten year old,not even knowing who my Father was.

    I chased the American dream and raised great kids.

    My Son fought at Desert Storm as a Marine out of 29 Palms Tank Division.

    My Daughter Amilya Antonetti,often seen on FOX(Hannity,O’reiley,Cavuto,Fox and Friends) and Glenn Beck, Promoting Small Business.

    Amilya presently has her own Radio Talk show on 77WABC every Saturday,from 1 to 3PM Eastern Time.

    Legal IMMIGRATION has made America GREAT!!

    I have been speaking at Universities,Libraries and many groups responding to the many invites,once my Memoir was Published.

    I am doing it,all for FREE!!My way to say THANK YOU America for the opportunity given me.

    A kid that could not speak a word of English,now speaks at Universities,Libraries and to our Troops as I did at Fort Belvoir.

    Can anyone ever imagine getting a signed letter from Justice Samuel Alito complimenting me on my Book.?

    Thank You.
    A proud Naturalized American Citizen.

    Franco Antonetti

    http://amzn.to//Xrr3FM

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