Memoir: It’s All in the Art

February 2, 2012 § 9 Comments

Shanna Mahin at the Pen Center blog makes an impassioned defense of the too-often-maligned memoir genre.  Like Shanna, we wonder why these same attacks and questions come up time and again.  To our critics: try writing a strong literary memoir.  There isnothing easy or therapeutic about it:

Here’s the thing: good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Naipaul said it … I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott, Cheryl Strayed, and … Samantha Dunn. I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.

… If you’re an aspiring memoirist and you’re participating in a workshop or a conference or a class somewhere, PLEASE let go of the idea that this is some sort of therapy for you. You’re not helping the cause. I’m not insensitive to the notion that you might need some therapy. I think we can all use some therapy. I’m a big fan. But the classroom is not the place for that. Your first clue is that there’s no couch.

… Which is not to say that the writing process isn’t therapeutic or that you won’t have realizations on the page, but if you’re telling a story that sounds like a soap opera, with angels and demons and someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snidley Whiplash, well, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Shanna Mahin’s full three-part rant can be found here.

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§ 9 Responses to Memoir: It’s All in the Art

  • Chase says:

    Yay! For heavens freaking sake. Thank you for posting this! Good art might be therapeutic, but not therapy in and of itself. Good art might be inspired by a wound, but please keep your blood and pus to yourself. It’s unsanitary. Even my art therapist friend will reiterate this. And back to my manuscript I go, which wreaks of whining. I won’t let it out of the house until it quits.

  • davidwberner says:

    Dinty Moore says it best…every single time. I teach writing, journalism, broadcast and also a class called “radio essay” and I have to help students understand the difference between memoir that resonates with others and memoir that is personal therapy. The latter is – well, many times, is nothing more than a diary entry. The former is real work and when it’s done well is as good as any literary fiction. Thanks again, Dinty!

  • Well said. When I finish my novel-in-progress (soon, I hope!) I plan to return to memoir. Writing fiction has helped me learn to advance the plot and develop the characters, which, as you say, are also crucial in memoir. The first two memoirs I wrote were truly therapeutic, but they weren’t art. Maybe next time will be different!

  • Cynthia says:

    I love it. And it’s all true. Memoir does not need to be at all therapeutic. It can be a joyous sharing of remarkable experiences that you simply want to share. It can have adventure and be a great story. It’s nice to hear that someone else things so. If one has either a remarkable life or a life that can somehow guide others, then sharing that is a gift.

  • […] Memoir: It’s All in the Art ( […]

  • 7theaven says:

    I agree. A memoir hasn’t any need to be therapeutic.

    Sharing experiences, joy. That goes a loong way

  • Janice says:

    A good memoir, when it is all said and done– which means written and written again and agonized over and and gutted and threaded and polished to some kind of shine– is much more than therapeutic for the writer. Being able to write a really good piece of literature based on your own life requires stepping outside of yourself and into the role of an observer. When this happens, something changes within the person and their relationship with what they are writing about. If you don’t want to call it therapeutic, fine. But it is a form of transcendence, a beautiful alchemy that allows for the possibility of transforming life into art.

  • Natalie says:

    I’d have to agree. There are few things more frustrating than reading a “therapeutic” memoir. Sometimes writers need to realize that not everyone cares about their shit as much as they do. That’s what personal blogs are for. But this post elicited a lot of thoughts from me about memoirs. Where are memoirs going today? When can I start writing my own? How do you write one if your life doesn’t really have the subject matter worthy of a memoir? I’d like to address those questions with my own opinion.
    When Mahin wrote that memoirs are the “red-headed stepchild of the literary world,” she wasn’t far from the truth. Sadly I feel that many readers today regard memoirs like they regard reality TV shows: worthless and overly emotional. I’ll also agree with Mahin when she believes that the assumption that readers think memoirs are the “easy way out for writers” is absurd. There’s something to be said about crafting an exquisite memoir that took years to put together. I must imagine that writers are immensely satisfied when they’ve given the time and effort to compile a memoir and ensure that it’s not a sappy regurgitation of their struggles and hardships in life. But I wonder what the future of memoirs looks like. When you think about it, the entire “creative nonfiction” genre was scoffed at when it was first mentioned. Nobody really understood how something could be creative and nonfiction at the same time. But look at it now; it’s become wildly popular. Will memoirs follow suit? Personally, I think that memoirs have great potential in the future. As the idea and concept of the memoir develops and as more writers begin to explore this genre, I think huge improvements will be made. Since memoirs are relatively young, I feel that we’re still in the experimental stages of figuring out how to compose the perfect memoir. It’s something that’s going to take practice (and it’s going to take several writers screwing it up), but soon enough I think writers will begin to understand the process.
    Another thing I always wonder when I’m reading memoirs is when I can write my own. I’m only 20 years old. I haven’t lived a lot of my life yet (or so I hope), but I’ve always wanted to play around with writing a memoir. However, I think many readers would laugh at a 20 year old trying to write a memoir. Then again, this also leads me to my next question regarding the subject of your memoir if you really haven’t experienced anything too traumatic in life. I feel like many of the memoirs I’ve read have been about people who have experienced great struggles and difficulties in their lifetime. I grew up in a very nuclear family. Both my parents, a sister and a dog. We lived in a suburban neighborhood with a pool in our backyard. My parents are helping me pay for my college education. I’m fortunate enough where I never have to worry about many things. I want to write a memoir, but I’m 20 and I haven’t really experienced hardships. Who wants to read a memoir about a very average, and dare I say privileged, life? It can’t be that exciting. But at the same time, Mahin gives me some hope. She discredits memoirs that sound like “soap operas,” or memoirs that are overly dramatic. Lucky for me my life is far from dramatic.
    Personally, I like memoirs. People fascinate me and I like to read about other people’s lives. I think there are plenty of dedicated readers out there who feel the same way, but I do agree that advancements need to be made in the field of memoirs. I’m confident that someday, memoirs will make it. When writers stop the “therapeutic” writing Mahin discusses, we’ll see vast improvements in the genre as a whole. Save the therapy and venting for your blog or journal. Give readers something they care about.

    • Janice Gary says:

      I’m really curious when you say “there are few things more frustrating than reading a therapeutic memoir.” I’d really like to know what you mean by that term “therapeutic memoir.” And what are some memoirs that you think of as “therapeutic”?

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