How To Find an Ending: What I Learned from Reading Fifty Contemporary Memoirs
May 10, 2021 § 11 Comments
By Cheryl Achterberg
I wanted to learn to write memoir, specifically, how to end a memoir. Some say you must read to write. So, I read 50 memoirs with a few questions in mind. If a memoir is a fragment of a person’s life, is every memoir time-bound? How long might that time be? May I write about a long relationship that cuts across a lifetime, but is not in itself my whole life? Is that fragmentary enough? Does it make a difference if the narrator is a young adult or an older adult? According to C. S. Lakin, a memoir ends when “you’ve arrived,” but is that always obvious? What are the tropes in memoir, both good and bad?
It took two years to read a set of 50 memoirs. There are, of course, books about how to write memoir as well as webinars, blogs, and magazine articles. I’ve read many of those books and taken many of those webinars in the last two years as well. But they didn’t address my central question—how to end a memoir? Romances and mysteries have lists of do/don’t instructions. Why not memoirs?
My sample set was based on availability, a list of the 50 best memoirs in the last 50 years from the NY Times, and a specific interest in Alzheimer’s Disease. The COVID lockdown interfered with acquisition. Books were treated as if radioactive at my local library. The place was closed for months. Eventually, I could order books, but many had to be obtained from other libraries across the state. Browsing shelves was not an option.
I read the set of 50 books. Two-thirds were by women. Almost half (N=21) were written in the last five years (2015-2020) and ten were published in the 1990s. Most of the older ones are classics in the memoir genre, for instance, The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, and The Color of Water by James McBride. Six were by authors of color, two were LGBTQ. I generally avoided travel memoirs and celebrities except for Michael J. Fox’s latest. His No Time Like the Future is a model of story construction. Some memoirs are narrative masterpieces (e.g., Bauby, The Butterfly and the Diving Bell). Some are so memorable you will never forget them (e.g., Educated by Tara Westover). Here’s what I learned.
Memoirs deal with serious subject matter. In my set of 50, more endings dealt with death than any other topic. Five deaths were either patients the narrator cared for (e.g., Magnusson’s Where Memories Go) or the narrator’s directly, (e.g., Grealey’s Autobiography of a Face). Another eight were about coming to terms with one’s own mortality (e.g., Saunder’s Memory’s Last Breath) or the death of a parent, child, or loved one (e.g., Tretheway’s Memorial Drive).
Memoirs address humanity’s biggest emotional questions. Beyond death, the second largest ending category was resolving relationship problems including prodigal son/daughter themes (e.g., Karr, Cherry), understanding parents/seeing truth (e.g., Laymon, Heavy), escaping a bad marriage (Gee, Higher Education, Marijuana in the Mansion) or resolving sexual identity and marital relationships (e.g., Glennon Doyle’s Untamed). Some confront grief (e.g., Before I Forget by B. Smith and Dan Gasby).
Meeting goals and challenges are prominent in endings. I defined a goal as something freely chosen such as Nita Sweeney setting out to run a marathon in Depression Hates a Moving Target. A challenge was an unplanned or unsettling event the narrator had to overcome as in Taylor’s, My Stroke of Insight. Together memoirs about goals and challenges accounted for 16 of the 50 memoirs I read. They show hope is justified, things can get better, and people can recover from setbacks. Rarely is failure ever documented (my sole example is Grann, The White Darkness).
Coming of age stories are represented but NOT dominant among memoirs. This finding was contrary to my expectations because I thought if there is a trope in memoir, coming of age would be it. There were six entries in my sample that recounted youth and adolescence ending in college entry, marriage, or moving. They might be called traditional or archetypic female narratives. However, both men (e.g., Wolff, The Boy’s Life) and women (e.g., Murray, Breaking Night) writers were represented in this set.
I did not find the proverbial tropes in memoir. There were no rags to riches stories nor were there any helpless female fatales. Neither did I find a standard timeline—a book might cover weeks or years or even a lifetime—so long as the “fragment” of a life was narrowed to a puzzling relationship, a question to be resolved, or challenge to be surmounted. Paula Balzer advises that memoirists should write with the end in sight. That may not be possible if self-discovery occurs in the process of the author’s writing. Besides, some things really are unending. A writer may learn that only by writing. As Lilly Dancyger noted, you can’t pretend your issue is “neatly resolved when it’s not.” And sometimes, that may be the point.
I learned there are no magic formulas, but memoirs are not about time. That finding answered my central question. Memoir endings can land anywhere and be anything if they carry a meaning. The memoirist should just write without worrying about the ending. The more important issue is what does the writing have to teach and share with yourself, other people, and the world at large. That’s when you’ll know you’ve arrived.
Cheryl Achterberg is a blogger, caregiver, mother, retired academic and dog lover in Columbus, Ohio. She is working on a memoir. See cherylachterberg.net.