In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray

September 8, 2011 § 27 Comments


We asked Sue William Silverman, one of our favorite memoirists and author of the craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir, to expand upon the excellent response she wrote as a letter-to-the-editor in the most recent Writer’s Chronicle, and, happily, she agreed:

I was disappointed (okay, angry) to read an interview with Aleksandar Hemon in the March/April 2011 Writer’s Chronicle.  Here was yet another fiction writer (or critic) berating the memoir as if it’s unseemly to explore the human condition.

Here is how I responded, in part, in a “Letter to the Editor” (WC, Sept., 2011):  “When Mr. Hemon questions ‘…how many books of addiction can you write in a lifetime,’ he attempts to reduce human experience to the absurd notion that a person is defined by just one thing.  I admit it – I have written about addiction.  But I’ve also written about growing up in the West Indies, Pat Boone, Route 17, working in a building riddled with asbestos, Lake Michigan…and so on.   Putting subject matter aside, what Mr. Hemon fails to grasp is that memoir requires that the author craft a personal story into one that’s metaphoric and universal – just like fiction and poetry.”

In the same interview, Hemon goes so far as to claim that memoir writers are cowardly because of their “refusal to enter literature, to create fictional work, to ply the imagination…that to me is cowardly…. There is something safe when someone tells you, ‘Your story’s interesting. Just tell it….’ Then you put it together and there’s your memoir.”

Cowardly?  Really?

What I didn’t say to Mr. Hemon, in my Letter to the Editor, is that to write a memoir is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an “interesting story” along the lines of “first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.”  Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative.

It took me five long years to write my memoir Love Sick.  Why?  Because it took that long to discover the metaphors and the irony – to go beyond the mere facts – of that experience.  If memoir were what Hemon claims, I could have knocked that sucker out in a few weeks.  Anyone could.  (Ironically, the only memoir that Hemon seems to admire is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, because he did make “stuff up.  He had the right instincts, just not the right label.”)

Here is what I did say to Mr. Hemon: “I don’t hear nonfiction writers disparage novelists, so it’s all the more frustrating that any number of fiction writers have an axe to grind with memoirists.  Literature is not a zero-sum game.  What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes.  What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks.  Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.”

And that, for now, is all she wrote.

 —

Sue William Silverman’s memoirLove Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction (W. W. Norton) is also a Lifetime Television original movie.  Her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award series in creative nonfiction, and her craft book is Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir.  She teaches in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts (www.suewilliamsilverman.com).

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§ 27 Responses to In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray

  • halibutrodeo says:

    What is all this hostility about, exactly? Jealousy? Are second tier novelists simply jealous that so many memoirs are on bestseller lists? That memoir writers consistently make the talk show circuit? I think it’s funny that Hemon and Moore and so many others don’t see the value of using nonfiction to express yourself. Ironic, since they’re using nonfiction to express their dislike of nonfiction…

  • namwmemoirs says:

    Yes Sue, memoirists seem to be misunderstood quite often. Apparently telling the deep and often dark truths about the human condition is upsetting to some, perhaps many. But for many more–the writers of memoir and their readers–a memoir offers hope, compassion, and meaning. A memoir teaches us about joy as well as suffering, how to suffer and recover, that we are all imperfect. This amazing grass roots movement of memoir is about something important or people wouldn’t be drawn to it. Thank you for your books and your wisdom and guidance and being a voice for the power of memoir!
    And Dinty, I’m so glad you will be with us at NAMW for the Teleconference on Memoir and Creative Nonfiction on Oct. 21. Bravo to you both.
    Linda Joy

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Is it really true that some fiction writers are content to only populate our culture with characters who are invented by themselves? It seems the height of narcissism! I paraphrase Cyrano De Bergerac. Instead of “Bring me giants,” I say “Bring me people.” Sue William Silverman’s dark memoir “I Remember Terror Father, Because I Remember You” is a great example of a book populated by the unbelievably messy human conditions. I appreciated learning about her real experience.Thanks to her for her memoir, for this defense of the craft, and to Dinty for providing this forum.

    Jerry Waxler
    Memory Writers Network

  • I never understood this argument, this visceral reaction, the negative response over memoirs and those who write them. I guess it’s easy to criticize what you don’t know – ignorance breeding arrogance. Yes, there is bad memoir, but there is also bad fiction and there are bad novels. It takes good writing, keen insight, superb guts to write a memoir that resonates with the reader and is not a list of quirks, regrets, and sorrows. That’s far easier to write about. It’s the stuff below the skin, the dirt under the fingernails that reveals the great stories inside all those life stories. Thanks, Dinty, for telling it straight.

    David W. Berner
    Author, Accidental Lessons

  • Jill Kolongowski says:

    Don’t fiction writers get their inspiration from reality? I’ve read many novels and stories that are (often in the author’s own words) “loosely based” on their own experiences (Jhumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, for example). I’m not sure where there’s such hostility–to me, it’s two different sides of the same coin, two different iterations of the same impulse. There aren’t enough readers and book-buyers to begin with. Let’s please support each other.

  • The same “cowardly” argument can be made if the tables are turned. There is much more safety in fabricating a story where the author’s stakes rest only on his craft. Critique of the craft does not cut into the author’s very life and soul. You don’t brace yourself for questions and cutting remarks about who you are and the life you’ve lead, the way a person who shares a part of his life through memoir has to brace himself for scrutiny.

    Maybe the allure or popularity of memoirs is that we have a population of readers who want to read about the human condition in a time when we’ve all become a commodity of sorts. There is a visceral connection readers get when they know they are reading a true account as opposed to a fictional account.

    I say this hostility only bodes well for memoirists. We’ve touched upon a nerve, we’ve threatened someone’s sense of security or superiority. That means we’re doing something right.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I find this strange coming from Hemon. How does his recent memoir/non-fiction piece in a June New Yorker magazine about the terrible death of his baby daughter figure into all of this? The writing was stark and beautiful and immensely powerful — I’m disappointed to think that he trashed memoir elsewhere.

  • Bill Kerr says:

    The fiction comes from somewhere, and if it’s not connected to someone’s experience, if the writer cannot connect it with his experience, his feelings, his hopes, his very being, then he’s probably a hack, borrowing from what he’s read, not what he knows. What great novels are not taken from experience, and what great memoirs do not transform mere documentation into a narrative, hence, if you must, a kind of “fiction.” Alas, the terms are useless.

  • Cynthia Patton says:

    I come from a family of secrets. I thought I wrote memoir because my grandfather was a journalist, that nonfiction was simply “in the blood.” The truth is I write nonfiction because telling the truth–refusing to keep secrets–feels more powerful than anything I’ve ever done. But this “airing of dirty laundry” makes my family uncomfortable. My mother periodically questions whether fiction would be more fun. Really? For whom?

    I suspect for her, as well as many hostile fiction writers, I’ve ventured too close to something dark, something that should remain unspoken, unwritten. If a story is fiction, we can muck around with difficult subjects because it’s safe. We all know it didn’t really happen. The problem with memoir is that it DID happen, and once that story is loose in the world there’s no telling what it will stir up.

    Or perhaps the hostility is the unfortunate result of a perception that the publishing pie is shrinking. Novelists don’t want to share their dwindling slice with an upstart genre that doesn’t (fill in the blank). They tear memoir down in order to feel better about themselves.

    Personally, I’d rather spend time completing my memoir.

    Thanks, Dinty, for yet another throught provoking post.

  • [...] In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray « BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog "What I didn’t say to Mr. Hemon, in my Letter to the Editor, is that to write a memoir is not a simple act of regurgitation or spitting out facts to an “interesting story” along the lines of “first this happened to me, then this happened, then this next thing happened.” Of much greater interest, and at the heart of memoir, is the story behind the story, the memoirist’s courageous ability to reflect upon the past, thus artistically recasting his or her experience into one that’s transformative." Advertisement LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "1"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_bg", "ffffff"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_border", "666666"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_text", "333333"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_link", "105CB6"); LD_AddCustomAttr("theme_url", "8DAB3B"); LD_AddCustomAttr("LangId", "1"); LD_AddSlot("LD_ROS_300-WEB"); LD_GetBids(); Share this:TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]

  • Grano says:

    Give me a TRUE story any time. Much rather hear from someone who has ‘been there, done that’. How well they tell their story shows craft. As we are all human, it is a reminder that anything human, we are capable of–thanks Maya Angelou for that insight.
    It has to be ‘fun’ to make stuff up and takes skill to keep your reader interested but CNP is where life is at.

  • [...] In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray (brevity.wordpress.com) [...]

  • [...] to Aleksandar Hemon’s slandering of the memoir genre in its March-April 2011 issue, which she expands on in Dinty Moore’s terrific nonfiction blog [...]

  • [...] wrote a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole [...]

  • Cori Howard says:

    I received an email recently from an editor at a big publishing house in Canada in response to my memoir book proposal. He wrote that he was receiving too many “high-concept” memoir proposals — whatever that means — and, as a result, feeling “a little memoired-out.”

    My reaction: would an editor ever, ever say that about fiction? Or even non-fiction? Given the popularity of memoirs – as one of the comments here mentions, I am mystified by this ongoing reluctance on the part of publishers and editors to embrace memoirs.

    I’m sure I’m not alone in my preference for reading good, confessional memoirs over watching reality TV. There’s a huge audience out there waiting to read good memoirs.

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Here’s my theory about why literary people get memoired-out. They started out reading literature, being more interested in imaginary people than real ones. We memoir junkies, on the other hand, set our priorities somewhat differently, loving the way real life can be described in a story. If this trend continues, we real-people will gravitate to our own publishing world. This could not have happened when the literature people ruled the world, but now, in the internet age, anyone can form their own version of reality.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • I’ve truly enjoyed reading all the responses to my post! Thanks so much to all of you for your fascinating insights — and wonderful support. We really are all in this together! And a big thanks to Dinty for his terrific blog, which offers a forum where we can all “meet.”

  • [...] In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray (brevity.wordpress.com) Tell the others:Like this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. from → Uncategorized ← Fear not, Pee Wee believes in Christmas. The Twelve Days of ANTICHRISTMAS: -03. → 16 Comments leave one → [...]

  • Been defending memoirs for decades. Memoir/schmemoir — it’s the writing that matters.. One doesn’t need to have been molested to craft a piece of literature. One need only know how to ply the language with riichness and insight. Bah humbug to the story tellers– only a teeny percentage of whom create real literature- or for that matter, stories of any significance.. http://www.emilyrosen424.com

  • [...] In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray (brevity.wordpress.com) [...]

  • [...] In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray(brevity.wordpress.com) [...]

  • [...] interested, I wrote a piece about this on brevity.com. You can find it here: http://brevity.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/in-defense-of-memoir/ – Sue, 1/24 I’ll apologize up front for using the words ‘non-trauma genre.’ [...]

  • [...] I commented today on the post In Defense of Memoir: Once More Into the Fray « From BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog Write Hard, Write Smart. http://brevity.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/in-defense-of-memoir/ [...]

  • [...] a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and was also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole [...]

  • shirleyhs says:

    Good defense, Sue. I want you on my side in any fight. And in case we memoirists are searching for a novelist who understands what the best memoirs accomplish, here is Hilary Mantel in the NYTimes today.

    “Memoir’s not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint. But she has to make it as true as she can. Writing a memoir is a process of facing yourself, so you must do it when you are ready.”

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