Make a new plan; or, On Memoir: A Reader’s Questions

I just read a much vaunted memoir, and found I kept getting distracted by questions — not about the writer but about the book, about the genre, about the publishing world.

Here’s a sort of anatomy of my reading experience:

– About a quarter of the way through:  This memoir includes very long direct quotation monologues and dialogues that the author is “remembering” from 40 years ago. Haven’t others been criticized for that? Haven’t other authors gotten the hairy eyeball for claiming to remember exact wording? Is this one of the things that James Frey got in trouble for? I don’t really know, as I didn’t follow that uproar, didn’t read the book, and don’t really care if a good story is exaggerated or not, I don’t think. Aren’t they all? What is the thinking about lengthy direct quotes in memoir?

– A little more than a third of the way through: This author writes about a life experience in the context of a place the author neither comes from nor belongs. Haven’t other authors who have done this been accused of appropriation? The author is not claiming to be other than their own identity, so maybe that’s why it’s okay? I don’t know. I’ve never been very clear about why that woman who wrote American Dirt got such a drubbing. It was fiction! The only thing that made sense from one thing I read was that it just wasn’t a very good book. Is the book I’m reading so well written that it can do what it wants? I don’t know. 

– A bit farther along now, and am wondering this: The author tells a story of a life experience against the backdrop of an important issue, but the book remains focused on the author, not on the issue. The person’s life does not particularly reveal anything about the issue nor cause us to understand the issue at another level, deeper than, for example, a nonfiction treatise on the issue. Isn’t that also appropriation? Or something like that? Or at least kind of lame? 

It just seems strange to me that nothing I have read about the book has raised these questions. If it were more of a page-turner, would I be spending so much time putting it down and looking out the window, wondering about these things? Do memoir writers have a duty to make their lives page-turner-y? (Isn’t that what got James Frey in trouble?) 

– Okay, I’m about 250 pages in and it seems to me the author has now learned how to write this book. Didn’t any early readers tell the author this? Why didn’t an editor didn’t step in to point this out and help create a whole book that works? The pace has stepped up, and there is an attempt to integrate the telling self, the experiencing self, and the situation the self finds itself in, and, perhaps most importantly, the other people in the situation. Do editors even do this kind of corrective advice any more? Are some authors so well respected that no one dare edit them?

– By the end, I’m feeling satisfied, although some of the end stuff could have been cut or trimmed, I think. But the book found itself and the story found its way to be told, and the author found the right placement of themselves in relation to the context. But it took more than half the book to get them there.

I think my overall conclusion is that (caveat auctor) a good memoir is very, very, very hard to write.

2 thoughts on “Make a new plan; or, On Memoir: A Reader’s Questions

  1. Such good questions.

    I wouldn’t want to do it. Though many of my poems emerge from a distinctly memoir-ish place, they often curve into non-memoir (or imagination). I should think that is what fiction writers who write the roman-a-clef are doing, yes?

    If I were to write memoir, it would require going back to read old journals and diaries–and there might be some near-direct quotes in those places–perhaps that’s where your author’s long direct quotes came from. And one reason I would not want to write memoir is that I do not think I could bear to reread and re-examine my younger self’s thoughts and interpretations of her experiences.

    As to editors: I have wondered recently whether today’s editors advise what to add or remove in order to make a book more saleable. It seems in a few recent novels and memoirs that I’ve read that the editor’s hand was a bit heavy on the this-is-what-will-sell aspect of the text.


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