I thought you’d never ask
In defense of memoir
My books are classified as memoir. The word memoir — from 15th century French — seems so literary, the classification let me feel smug.
Until I read an article by a book critic saying that the memoir genre is the Barbie doll of autobiography. Pop. There goes my ego.
My books are collections of short, personal essays. Short writings tend to be dismissed. One author (of short pieces) said that short-piece writers’ work sits on the edge of the chair of literature.
My essays also are funny, yet another strike against them. People don’t take humor seriously.
And yet, I carry on writing mostly short, humorous, personal essays and columns. When some are collected into books, the titles reveal the mostly funny content: “Sometimes a Wheel Falls Off,” “Light and Variable,” “Poke a Stick at It.” They’re classified as memoir.
Memoirs come in many flavors: dreadful childhoods, dreadful diseases or an earnest year of something that sounds dreadful to me. We are a society that is both confessional and voyeuristic. Once in a while, a memoir is both literary and popular, such as Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” Another Irish writer, Nuala O’Faolain (“Are You Somebody?”) said one cannot write a memoir until their heart has been broken. But all of our hearts have been broken in some way, which makes us all candidates for memoir.
My favorite memoirs are the funny, short pieces about the eccentric family of James Grover Thurber from his book “My Life and Hard Times.” In Thurber country, it is said, people behave more foolishly than a self-respecting dog would.
In praise of and in defense of memoir and autobiography, I recommend the following:
“Blue Jelly” by Debbie Bull, subtitled “Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning.” When her boyfriend left, she was so broken-hearted she identified with the song “I’m So Miserable” by Billy Ray Cyrus. The lyrics go, “I’m so miserable without you, it’s almost like you’re here.” In canning and her own kitchen, things turn out as they should.
“Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Official Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral” by Gayden Metcalfe and Charlotte Hays. Two women in a Mississippi Delta town tell us how their church receptions — from the Methodists (deviled eggs) to the Baptists (itty-bitty marshmallows) and Episcopalians (restorative cocktails) — define a community. Even the recipes are funny, such as that for Vodka Cake. “We’re embarrassed to death to tell you what’s in this cake. How many of the world’s great chefs use Jell-O pudding?”
“A River Runs Through It and Other Stories” by Norman Maclean is not funny, but it is witty, beautiful and powerful. This tale of youthful memory is set beside the Big Blackfoot River and begins, “In my family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”
“My Life in Middlemarch” by Rebecca Mead is a combined memoir and biography of George Eliot. Mead writes about her passionate involvement with the book many consider the greatest English novel and how it shaped her own life. Sounds weird, but I found it mesmerizing and convincing. I wish I could write a book that had that effect on someone.
“The Memory of All That” by Betsy Blair begins with her idyllic marriage as a child bride to Gene Kelly and their fairytale life in Hollywood, segues into her political activism that leads to the blacklist of Communism, then on to her own life as an expatriate in Europe and award-winning actress in “Marty.” It’s a charming book of growing into wisdom and maturity.
“The Distancers: An American Memoir” by Lee Sandlin is a family memoir so original and bluntly honest, I hope to emulate it someday with stories of my own family. Such a bad title, but an accurate reference to several generations of a non-communicating family. These people kept their distance. An uncle, quiet and long suffering, finally lost his temper and got into a fist fight with his brother-in-law. They never spoke again although they lived in the same house for 17 more years. Now that’s non-communicative.
Families, marriages, romances, church communities — that’s the stuff of memoir. And life.