Writing my Memwahhz: A Guest Post by Albert Flynn DeSilver
The most common reply I get from people when I tell them I’ve published a memoir is, “aren’t you a bit young to be writing your memoirs?” (And I’m amazed at how often they do pronounce the word, like my neighbor, with a nasal faux-French-Farsi inflection.) At which point I have to explain, “no, no, a memoir, singular, I’ve written a memoir!—I’m not in my sunset years writing the autobiography of my entire life, known as one’s memoirs (plural).”
A memoir covers a section of a life. It could be about the last three weeks of your best friend’s life before they went missing in the Alaska Wilderness, or the ten years it took you to get off prescription pills. One of my favorite examples is Robin Romm’s book The Mercy Papers: A Memoir of Three Weeks, which is a beautiful and emotional chronicle of the last weeks of her mother’s life as she watched her die of cancer. The opening description of the hospice nurse with her “blue teeth” is exquisite, and one of my favorite book openings, period. She uses her dog, Mercy, as a soft metaphor and through-line to literally guide her emotionally through this difficult time in her life. It’s almost written as a personal journal in conversation with her dog. (Dogs are such exquisite listeners, especially when the emotional stakes are high!)
Ever notice how Mary Karr’s memoirs are pretty much broken up into, childhood (The Liar’s Club), adolescence, high school, and early college (Cherry), and young and mid adulthood (Lit)? This is not to say one can’t move through time chronologically, or for that matter experimentally, in a memoir. One of the great defining characteristics of contemporary memoir is the unique play of time—using flashback, dream sequence, and future projecting—my favorite example being Boys of my Youth by Joanne Beard. But what we are not doing is chronologically recalling an entire life (I did this, and then I did this, and finally here I am, old and wise). Memoir as a genre has very much come into its own over the past twenty years, and is now filled with a vast array of narrative exploration of the true (as true as memory can be) personal account. One of the latest incarnations is the “Immersion Memoir” where people are seeking out interesting, challenging, odd, or even dangerous experiences and completely immersing themselves in the situation and experience in order to write about it. “My Year Living as a Buddhist Nun in Burma” or “My Time Working for Minimum Wage in a Slaughterhouse in Iowa,” might be examples. I suppose if “Supersize Me” was a book it could be considered an “Immersion Memoir.” Such books include elements of travelogue, documentary script, and deep investigative journalism. The point being that at it’s best memoir (singular) explores a portion of a life lived in a unique, open way, is filled with adventurous experiences, transformation, lessons learned, a solid story structure, and prose that shimmers off the page as lusciously as any novel—as devoutly musical and metaphoric as any great poem.
Albert, thank you for this humorous and insightful guest post about the genres of memoirs, memoir, and the new proliferation of "immersion memoir" (perfect name). Best of luck with your memoir! Although maybe you don't need any luck, as Kirkus Reviews calls Beamish Boy “a beautifully written memoir. . .poignant and inspirational, comical and terrifying!”
Comments are welcomed.