In recent years, nearly every personal newspaper, magazine, or internet piece has been written written by someone “who is working on a memoir,” “has just completed a memoir,” or “is thinking about writing a memoir.” While some of these pieces are very good, most are unmemorable, becoming indistinguishable from previous entries within moments after reading. Why so many memoirs?
Neil Genzlinger’s recent NY Times Book Review The Problem with Memoirs
laments the market saturation. While reviewing four memoirs (none of which I’ve read), he offers guidelines for deciding whether a memoir should be published:
Sure, the resulting list [of tens of thousands of memoirs from an Amazon search] has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child or been an underprivileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.
1 That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. This maxim, which was inspired by an unrewarding few hours with “Disaster Preparedness,” by Heather Havrilesky, is really a response to a broader problem, a sort of grade inflation for life experiences. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or a D if grades were being passed out — not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy.
2 No one wants to relive your misery. . . .
No, the sole purpose of this memoir, like many, many others concerning some personal trial, is to generate sympathy for its author. But it’s the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity. That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal. . . .
If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it. . . .
That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.
Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.
Enduring ordeals like the ones mentioned above inevitably produces new insights, recognitions of false gods in which we’ve placed our trust, which are profound to us. We want to discover their meaningfulness. But, our “will” resists the work of the Holy Spirit
. We don’t want to die. So rather than taking up our cross and waiting and trusting Christ to work in us, we bind ourselves to another version of the law
, another attempt at shaping others’ perception of us, that will end the pain and improve our circumstances, perhaps through a memoir whose scope does not escape navel gazing. Rather than accepting justification through Christ on the cross, we seek to transform ourselves and avoid a painful death. But the cross is what and all we need, even as failed actual or contemplated memoirists.