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    « May I Speculate in a Memoir or Family History? | Main | Writing a Family History Should be a Unique Experience »
    Wednesday
    Apr072010

    What's Worth a Memoir?

    A couple of days ago I wrote a post posing the question, “Is my life interesting enough for a memoir?” Searching the web yesterday to review posts on memoirs and family histories as I often do,  I was struck with some new thoughts on the subject.

    First, a lot of memoirs sneak up on their authors. I found three posts about just published or soon to be published memoirs. Wendy Brown, who wrote Dead End Gene Pool, said, “The irony is that I never set out to write a memoir in the first place…Actually, I was writing a cookbook.” But after several family tragedies including the deaths of her husband and step-children in a plane crash, “…the cookbook turned into an I-need-to-make-sense-of-my-life memoir.” Journalist Alexis Gray took a leave of absence from her job with the Houston Chronicle to backpack in Africa. She said, “I didn’t expect to take a year away from full-time work after my trip to write a book.” Her memoir is soon to be published. Finally, college student Jen Knox said of her recently published book, Musical Chairs, where she tries to sort out her depression, “I did not set out to write a memoir …Once a phenomenal teacher introduced me to the art of essay and memoir, I decided to give it a shot. I couldn't stop writing.”

    Second, the people doubting that their lives are interesting enough for a memoir misunderstand the difference between memoir and autobiography. An autobiography seeks to factually and completely document one’s entire life. A memoir does not necessarily do either. A memoir may deal only with an episode or a slice of life. Novelist Gore Vidal said of memoir, its “how one remembers one’s own life.” A memoir is less an effort to document than to reflect upon something memorable. The subject can be mundane like Peter Mayle’s, A Year In Provence, which is simply an account of his domestic life in the South of France, or tragic like Joan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she tries to sort out a chain of events in which her daughter suffers septic shock and is placed in a drug induced coma and her husband of 40 years, novelist John Gregory Dunne, dies of a heart attack. A memoir can just as well be of  a moment as a lifetime.

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