The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson. Swallow Press, 200 pages. Hardcover, $32.95; paperback, $16.95.
IT IS NO SECRET that memoirs have been hot for at least a decade, as magazines and book publishers seek writers who will write candidly and eloquently about themselves, their loved ones and their enemies. Thomas Larson has written a book with the primary goal of explaining how memoirs have become such a popular literary form. Along that path Larson offers advice, directly and indirectly, about how to compose and market memorable memoirs.
A freelance writer in San Diego, Larson wisely distinguishes between autobiography and memoir, labels that are frequently--and mistakenly--used interchangeably. A memoir is selective, an autobiography indiscriminate. In Larson's view, and mine, autobiography is the parent of memoir, and a sometimes overly harsh parent. As a result, he says, "the fledgling ran off to find its own path in the world, going a little crazy with experimentation and daring." An autobiography tends to deal with a life in full, sometimes from cradle to the edge of the grave. A memoir is more a slice of life. As Larson explains, memoirists focus "on the emotional immediacy of a singular relationship--unresolved feelings for a parent, a child, a sibling, a partner, an illness, a regret, a loss, a death, a phase like childhood or adolescence, a period like college."
The more expansive memoirists might build on the personal to grapple with "such larger issues as heritage, gender, ethnicity, culture, the spiritual and natural realms, even time itself." It is legitimate, too, for a memoirist to relate a past self to a current self, as long as the telling is factually accurate and emotionally honest. Rich material is rarely enough for a memoir to emerge from the unmemorable examples that abound. Stylistic artistry is required, including something that causes readers to feel tension, which can derive "when self and other, now and then, drama and analysis are joined." The resolution of that tension derives from facing the truth, and then telling the truth, something that many human beings--writers and nonwriters alike--find difficult to accomplish.
Larson's memoir writing benefited from working with Judith Moore, who was an editor at the San Diego Reader and whose own memoir, Fat Girl: A True Story, resonated with everybody I know who read it. Larson also benefited from close readings by his romantic partner, Suzanna Neal. As he mentions in his acknowledgments, she provided a vital service to the memoirist, asking him, "What are you trying to say?"
Throughout his book, Larson focuses on already-published memoirs where the authors knew what they were trying to say--and said it all memorably. Among the seminal memoirs he wisely cites from the 1980s are Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff and A Hole in the World by Richard Rhodes. At the back of his book, Larson lists 125 memoirs from the 1930s to the present that would constitute an admirable reading list for anybody who cares about the format.
Perhaps one of the most helpful paragraphs aimed at the would-be writer of memoirs, as opposed to those who will read only, appears on page 23. Here is Larson, the excellent teacher:
Let's say you plan to write a memoir
about the year you just spent rebuilding
homes in New Orleans, post-Katrina.
What's relational? Beyond musing about
the stultifying bureaucracy and the force of
a natural disaster, you decide to focus on
the displaced people you saw every day
who want their homes fixed and their city
back. You detail their initiative and frustration,
their loss and vulnerability. But what
of you is important in all this? Is it your
homelessness--actual, emotional, symbolic
--that has been stirred by their
trauma? Put another way, perhaps helping
others has led you to reflect on the meaning
of displacement, or alienation, in your
life, too. It must have something to do with
your core self or else you wouldn't have
volunteered, you wouldn't have felt your
passion connected to theirs. Self and
world, self and core; all this is relational.
If passages like that fail to move Larson's readers to attempt memoir, perhaps nothing will.
Steve Weinberg Steve Weinberg reads memoirs, then writes biographies, from his home in Columbia, Mo.
Named Works: The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative (Book) Book reviews
Weinberg, Steve. "A thoughtful look at memoir writing.('The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative')(Book review)." The Writer Feb. 2008: 44. Academic OneFile. Web. 8 Nov. 2009.
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