Toward a More Expansive Definition of Memoir

March 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop at The MoMAWriter/teacher/editor Steven Church has posted a slightly revised version of his excellent AWP panel talk on the ‘stealth’ memoir, and it is well worth the read. Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to his full essay:

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book [ The Day After The Day After: My Atomic Angst ] because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy. A book about that time and place needed that thread as a kind of universal touchstone, a hook for the reader of memoir who expects some personal stakes right up front; and I knew that the challenge was one of balance.

 I want to believe that we can also think of the expectations of memoir more generously, more broadly than the confessional or traumatic. I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at it’s best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow. Perhaps like all literature it is aiming to capture the sublime confluence of these and other human experiences through the synchronicity of ideas and emotions.


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