Can Young People Write Memoir?

May 20, 2015 § 11 Comments

Leslie Jamison offers up her usual incisive brilliance in a NY Times book review discussion titled “Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?” Here’s a bit, followed by the link:

I probably shouldn’t venture any further into my defense of young memoir before acknowledging that I’m a young writer who has written about my life. I’ve got skin in the game. And my skin flinches, in particular, at the second part of Yardley’s argument: the notion that even those who have had experiences worth narrating will be “too young to know what to make of them,” which feels like a willfully reductive evasion of a more complicated truth.

I do see where the critique comes from. In its sophisticated form, it’s a call for drafting and revision, for the ways we can productively re-examine our own stories and dig underneath our familiar narratives of self to find the more surprising layers beneath. The work of this excavation can often happen more easily with distance. But it seems futile to project categorical algorithms onto when this excavation can happen — how long it will take, how many birthdays it requires.

Of course someone will look back at his first broken heart with a different perspective at the age of 40, or 60, or 80. But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives are better, or that our self-­understanding travels toward some telos of perfect consummation with every passing year…

Benjamin Moser’s take, following Jamison’s, is well worth reading too:

§ 11 Responses to Can Young People Write Memoir?

  • Susan Tiberghien says:

    Another excellent, thought provoking Brevity Blog! Thank you, Susan

    Susan Tiberghien 24 chemin des Mollies 1293 Bellevue, Switzerland 41 (0)22 774 3835 One Year to a Writing Life

    Side by Side, Writing Your Love Story

  • Kim says:

    Skin doesn’t flinch. For such a careful writer it’s an odd mistake. Maybe she couldn’t resist the alliteration.

  • Richard Gilbert says:

    Jamison’s piece sent me to Yardley’s review, which is so choleric and mean-spirited—anti-youth, -memoir, -MFA programs—that it alone makes me think I’d like Boast’s book. His memoir has a solid four-star ranking by readers on Amazon and only slightly less on Goodreads.

    Here is a passage from its starred review in Publishers Weekly:

    “Boast writes with unsparing clarity, in precisely observed domestic scenes that reveal mountains of unspoken feeling, of the grief his family endured—his father’s final lonely year is a heart-breaking tableau of anguish . . . His narrative unfolds as a counterpoint between the culture of the American middle class and the warm, sometimes claustrophobic culture of his English relatives as he tries, hesitantly and awkwardly, to embrace them. The result is a finely wrought, wrenching yet lyrical study of a family that lives on past its seeming end.”

  • Thanks for the links. To me, if it the writing is compelling, moving, the age of the writer is irrelevant.

  • Mary Scherf says:

    Who is to say what is the defining moment in a life that demands to be recorded? We may find and lose our voices many times over the course of a life. Age doesn’t matter. Just tell me your story.

  • Thanks for the link. My feeling is, Write whatever you want young’uns, but write it well. And Jamison and Moser write it well.

  • George says:

    Does “project categorical algorithms” means “name a definite age”? And “willfully reductive evasion of a more complicated truth” has something wrong with it. There could be a willfully reductive caricature of something or t’other, I suppose.

    I’m missing the incisive brilliance, I guess.

  • Road to Servitude says:

    Surely it would be great to see someone revisit their live periodically, writing a new memoirs book every (say) ten year or so, and see how their understanding of this or that event has changed; and how it links with other events in their lives?…

  • Hope Edelman says:

    I’ve had the opportunity to update a memoir-based book twice — I originally wrote it at 28, revised it at 41, and then again at 49. Updating those latter two editions were as close as I can imagine coming to time traveling and revisiting a younger self. My interpretation of past events had changed each time I went back to revise, first because I’d married and had children in the interim, then largely because I’d passed my mother’s age (42) at time of death. (It was a book about mother loss.) So my insights each time were different, yes, but each time I updated the material I was struck by the insights I’d had at 28. The spirit of inquiry into the self, the desire to deeply mine the experience for meaning, and the conclusions drawn were that of a younger individual, but no less valuable to readers, I believe. I teach graduate nonfiction students of all ages, from the 20s all the way up to the 70s, and I don’t believe age determines the quality or value of a memoir. Trying to write about an experience as it’s unfolding rarely allows a writer the critical distance to understand what it “means”, but after some time, if you’re a writer who can go to those hard and sometimes frightening places where meaning resides and reflect on it honestly — then age of the author is irrelevant.

  • Road to Servitude says:

    Hope Edelman, that sounds great. I would expect people’s views on personal events to change over time, like you’ve said, so it sounds like something really important for people writing memoirs to reflect upon.

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