I was asked this question in class last night, and a lively discussion ensued. There are many reasons memoir is flying off the shelves right now–Americans’ voyeuristic obsessions, our thrill at the democratization of the personal narrative (you don’t have to be a president or have climbed Mount Everest to write about your life), the multicultural movement and our increasing interest at the variety of life’s experiences, Americans’ misguided sense that nonfiction is truer than fiction, our desperation to know that our small lives matter… One answer occurred to me that I want to explore further here: Memoir is hot now because, in this fragmented, frenzied society, we long to know that our lives have structure and unity. We feel scattered. We can’t see the big picture. We read about other, ordinary people’s struggles because we intuit they’ve had to make some sense of them in order to make a book.
If a memoirist has done his or her work, the disparate fragments of life have become something artful and engaging. How? Revision! In fact, revision on at least two planes. The author must revise how he or she conceives of the life-story, and the author must revise the written version. Often these two go hand-in-hand. I can’t tell you how many students of mine are disconcerted when they discover that writing memoir feels like therapy–the tears, the memories they’d rather not face, the hard questions, the digging in sore spots… I’ve worked with therapists writing their memoirs who, after decades of doing their own therapeutic work, were shocked to uncover even more insights and memories in the course of writing. Like any worthy, emotional work, the only way out is through. This revision benefits us–we become more self-aware–and it benefits our work. I often wonder what James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces might have looked like had he not simply lied about his past but also explored why he lied, within the memoir. We all knowingly or unknowingly fabricate the past. Had Frey taken the next step in revision, digging into a deeper level of honesty and a deeper level of complexity in his manuscript, he might have created a story that could last beyond a momentary flurry of publicity.
Without seeing our lives and our written work from multiple angles over various periods of time, we cannot find the themes that bind one memory to the next. Nor can we discover the structure lurking below the story’s surface, nor the movement that has carried us from the person we were into the person we are now. Revision helps us find a container for our story, and it is this container that readers grab at. Because if Mary Karr or Augustine Burroughs or Patricia Hampl or any number of seemingly ordinary people can make wholeness of this mess, perhaps we can, too.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew