Since I’ve been a memoir writer and a defender of the genre, I’ve been righting what I believe is an inaccuracy. By definition, memoir focuses on one segment, an event or experience of a writer’s life. But I would argue to widen the lens and say a book can still be called a memoir even if told with multiple events and experiences.
My book would not be called a memoir according to the definition. Under the Birch Tree was not written as a single event, but was a progression of experiences over three decades, beginning from a childhood memory I used as theme to show self-discovery through the years. The number of events or years written about in a memoir should not be a factor when calling a piece of work memoir. It’s not necessarily about the events or the segment of time in the writer’s life, but more about the writer as narrator behind the experience or event.
In writing memoir, I learned how important the self is in relation to my subject. I couldn’t allow my narration to be confined to one event because I wanted my readers to grasp a sense of me as character, someone who was developing through the multiple years and experiences. To clip my story to a single event or experience would have limited my opportunity to show my identity and personality as I explored my subject in its entirety.
I recently read an interview with Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments and The Situation and the Story. (www.brevity.wordpress.com) Both books were meaningful contributors to my self-study of writing effective memoir.
Gornick says there’s a persona, an “instrument of illumination.” Without a persona, there is neither story nor subject. I don’t disagree. “I think the star of the writing, should be the narrator, tasked as the persona,” she says.
I wondered more about “persona?” The word is defined as the aspect of someone’s character that is presented to or perceived by others. It is their image, character, personality, identity, self.
Gornick believes only a fraction of memoirs are works that will last. “I mean, they come and go, and most of them are not literature.” Ouch!
I thought about what makes a memoir “last.” What makes me remember someone’s story?
Here’s what I look for in reading a lasting memoir, regardless if told as a single event or as multiple experiences over many years.
*What are you thinking? I want in on the narrator’s inner dialogue.
*Get real. Do I see a vulnerable narrator? I want to empathize with an authentic narrator.
*Reflections are star. I especially want to understand the reflections. Are the deep feelings and emotions as described using all senses to draw me in? I also want to see that the reflections are consistent throughout the entire story.
*Think bigger, lasting picture. Gornick suggests avoiding the “glut of stuff” where a memoir comes and goes. I’m thinking of universal themes I can relate to and that will stand the test of time.
A memoir should be about meaning with a writer’s devotion to his or her “persona,” as called by Gornick, and a universality that all readers can find relatable. This can be achieved through not only a single event but also through many years and multiple events. A memoir writer doesn’t have to violate the true definition of memoir to call their story a memoir.
How will your memoir stand the test of time?