Tapped Out: Memoir Beyond Trauma

October 8, 2015 § 8 Comments

"Tell the reader about your problems..."

“Tell the reader about your problems…”

At Kirkus Reviews, Debra Monroe mourns the passing of what used to be called “autobiography”:

I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.

Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.

Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir.

Monroe doesn’t decry the memoirs of addiction, of abuse, of trauma–but she questions why memoir has become so inextricably linked with traumatic experience.

Somewhere in the journey from famous-person’s-diary to anyone-can-memoir, we’ve lost sight of the idea that unique experience–or universal experience well-told–can be interesting enough. That our genre isn’t Queen For A Day. That it’s OK to be a wordsmith, a world-quantifier, an insight-generator, rather than primarily a sufferer.

Monroe mentions that “most afflictions have been covered now,” and she’s right. How many more journeys do we need through addiction, through childhood sexual abuse, through sex work?

Yet this is not to say OFF LIMITS to certain topics, just because they’ve “been done,” often more than once before. Rather, if we are writing our trauma, we must look for what we have to say that’s new. The “so what” factor is stronger than it used to be for the recovery memoir. The craft needed to sell the story is at a higher level. The reader’s need is for the author’s unique perspective, the author’s ability to generate insight in partnership with the reader.

As Monroe argues, “While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek.”

Read the whole thing at Kirkus Reviews.

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§ 8 Responses to Tapped Out: Memoir Beyond Trauma

  • tmezpoetry says:

    I touched on this in my DanceofSorrows blog:

    “At times, it’s difficult to describe the breathing through dark experiences or places. And while depression, sadness, disappointments, regrets or pain are often nominated for best role, they hardly give the audience room to embrace more complex or new characters on the stage. Feel it, move with it, cast attention to its lines as it seems familiar yet eludes full recognition. One yells out ‘pain’, the other shouts ‘grevoushede’, and another mumbles something about the Axis while trying to differentiate the characters by how each is expected to perform. Behind the curtain, conversations are much more complex and interesting.”

    Although the post was more about moving through the meaning of suffrage, it still applies to writing and finding our unique expression. If a writer is meant to write about it, more power to them. There will always be the need for validating the reader. And so true..it is a station or two on a longer trek, well said! Great article.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for this link and for your thoughts. I am writing memoir, which certainly contains trauma, but mine are the ordinary traumas that I found and felt unprepared to face, but faced anyway, because I had no choice. If I think of my story as autobiography looking at my entire life, rather than memoir focused on one experience or period, I think I will make better sense of what I am doing on the page.

  • Alexa says:

    Emphasis matters, as does universality. There seems to be a turning, too, in a direction of resilience — “post-traumatic growth,” it’s being called. Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning is my benchmark — he not only survived imprisonment during the Holocaust, he invented a school of thought and psychotherapy while interred — his experience provided the genesis of his work. Nelson Mandela and Malala Yousafzai are two other pillars of possibility …

    Trauma surely interrupts one’s journey — it shatters one’s ground of being. It definitely is a stoppage … and a near-universal experience. The stories that rivet us are those that chronicle survival and the return of vitality and agency; these stories are mentors, proof of what is possible. The agony matters — it is the crux of the story — and ultimately, it is agency that shows us a way through.

  • Janice Gary says:

    As nonfiction writers, we work with what we are given. I don’t agree that memoirs have become “recovery memoir” heavy, but rather that drama of any kind has always made good material for literature. There are good memoirs that deal with overcoming trauma and good ones that have no traumatic component (although I will argue that “Boys of My Youth” has deals with some very traumatic experiences). I’ll be on a panel at the upcoming NonFiction Now entitled “You Lived Through It, Do We have to Read About It?” I wish we didn’t have to have the discussion. We who write from life don’t get to pick and chose what life we have had. Those who have encountered real trauma in life and write about it have had to overcome it on some level or they wouldn’t be around – or able- to write about it. And walking through and out of hell has been an enduring theme since Dante’s Inferno.

  • A double “like” button for Debra. As a memoir writer, I read and study anything I can get my hands on about the subject. However, continually reading memoirs about the same “afflictions” does not make a good library! Though I sympathize with the writer and admire his or her strength in “overcoming adversity” I continually seek a “so what” factor as one of my, albeit, most important, learning tools.

  • Reblogged this on Under the Birch Tree and commented:
    Well explained by Debra Monroe

  • Catherine says:

    I love reading memoirs. There is a common misconception that you have to have been through a traumatic experience to tell your story, but this presents a catch 22. People who have not gone through trauma may feel that they do not have a story to tell, and people who have had trauma may feel that they have to always trot out their story anytime someone wants to hear it. It becomes performance art. The people with trauma, retell their story again and again, and the people without trauma decide to not tell anything. I remember a Twitter discussion about this subject, and some folks were saying how they felt they were profiting off of their pain simply to get into college or get a job and how they felt devalued each time they had to tell their story. I agree that readers are asking “so what” after reading the plethora of memoirs regarding trauma that are in publication, but I think that this is a bigger question for our society and how we view trauma. As is said, trauma sells. We have become “addicted” to the trauma story, no matter who is telling it. People will continue to write memoirs filled with pain, but it is what the readers take from the memoir that is most important.

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