By: Tai Dietrich
Experience without meaning offers little but a historical record, but the way we process and remember things makes them meaningful and interesting to read about. Memoir, derived from the French word for “memory,” is distinct from biographies and autobiographies because it relies on how one person processed and retained an event, a moment, a history. Unlike most other literary forms, memoirs tend to toe the line between fiction and nonfiction and must cope with the burden of truth along with the audience’s expectation to be entertained. But the ultimate appeal of memoir is its status as “witness to real life.”
Why do books and movies become more interesting when we discover that they’re based in reality? The appeal of true stories probably comes from our desire to know that extraordinary things can happen in real life; as well as the desire to know that we’re not alone in this world, whatever our circumstances. But the facts don’t make the story. Without any insightful meaning or interpretation a memoir reduces itself to that of an autobiography: a record of facts.
People have been writing memoirs since the BCs, among the earliest belonging to the likes of Julius Caesar. But our interest really piqued when St. Augustine wrote his suffering-and-redemption story Confessions toward the end of the first century. Augustine’s Confessions is notorious because of its frank and lurid descriptions of the fruitful sex life he led prior to his conversion to Christianity. It’s undeniable that the most interesting memoirs help the reader have a visceral experience: to help you feel as though you’re in the room during one of Augustine’s scandalous sexscapades, uncomfortably close enough to see what’s going on between the sheets.
In his New Yorker article “But Enough About Me: What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?,” Daniel Mendelsohn points out that:
“the memoir’s essentially religious DNA, the Augustinian preoccupation with bearing written witness to remarkable inner transformations, remained dominant during the sixteen centuries from the Confessions to Burroughs’ Running with Scissors.”
Memoir, then, is essentially confessional literature. From Augustine’s time in the early ADs to the present in 2014, people have been fascinated by first-hand accounts of personal transformation following a cathartic purge of the author’s internal life. The hallmarks of memoir that draw readers in have a lot to do with its exposure of secrets, shame, and self-examination as much as its candor. It cannot be denied that writing a good memoir takes courage: it’s not just giving a laundry list of objective facts; it requires your innermost thoughts and feelings presented in the most frank and upfront manner possible. That’s probably why the public was as outraged as it was when they discovered that James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003) had been partially embellished. Frey claimed that the story needed a happy ending so that readers would feel hopeful and satisfied at the book’s end. Instead, readers felt deceived because the story that they were so invested in turned out to be a lie. Maybe memoir readers don’t care about whether or not there’s a happy ending, because they know that that’s not what memoirs are about. It seems as though what memoir readers are ultimately seeking is honesty of the most candid and meaningful kind because real life often doesn’t produce the happy endings or satisfying resolutions we hope for.
This commentary is a continuation of the discussion in Daniel Mendelsohn’s 2010 article “But Enough About Me: What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves?”