The ubiquity of memoir

For the past few months, I have been involved in organizing a writers’ conference set for next month in Las Vegas. The focus of the event is memoirs: how to write them and get them published. While our planning meetings have focused mainly on important issues such as how much coffee to order and what the name tags should say, they have also resulted in thought-provoking conversations about the similarities of seemingly different categories of writing. Our planning committee includes novelists, journalists and travel writers — a pleasant diversity of interests and backgrounds. And yet, when we begin talking about memoir, it seems as though we’re all — in one way or another — memoirists. I asked Megan Edwards, whose writing credits include news stories, human interest columns, travel pieces, fiction and nonfiction, to share her thoughts on how personal experience informs every kind of writing.—Geoff Schumacher

By Megan Edwards

Like Geoff, I’ve noticed that I’ve begun thinking about memoir differently — or at least more closely — since I began working on this conference. (And hey, since my job is publicity, I better mention that we’re still accepting registrations for “Telling Your Story: The Craft and Business of Memoir Writing,” set for March 5 at the Gold Coast. Complete information is online at http://www.nevadawriters.org.) Until recently, I didn’t think of myself as a memoirist. This may seem rather odd because my first book, Roads from the Ashes: An Odyssey in Real Life on the Virtual Frontier, is a memoir. It’s the story of six years “on the road” in the wake of a wildfire that destroyed my house and belongings. The reason I never thought of it as a memoir is that my publisher called it a “travel narrative.” That is, of course, a subcategory of memoir, but I always focused on the “travel” side of things.

Now, as I prepare for this memoir conference, I realize that while “memoir” brings to mind books like Bill Clinton’s My Life and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, there are plenty of novels, histories, nonfiction narratives, and even cookbooks and guidebooks that are really memoirs in disguise. This realization — that writers of every stripe are constantly drawing from personal experience — has got me looking for the memoir in everything. And I’ve been finding it.

One of the speakers at the conference will be Las Vegas author Jack Sheehan. Just the other day, news broke that a screenplay he wrote back in the 1980s is being made into a film. The story is based on real events that happened to Jack’s boyhood friend. No, the film is not a memoir. To call it one would mislead audiences into thinking they would be watching a famous person’s life story. But, like a memoir, it’s a story that recalls real people and events.

Because memoirists must mold real events into stories to give them a point and make them interesting to read, memoirs end up sharing many characteristics with fiction. Sometimes the barrier between the two is breached, as with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Presented as a memoir but later exposed as containing fictional elements, the book brought issues of honesty to the fore. Readers love to be entertained, but they dislike being duped.

Far more often, I suspect, the blurring of the line between truth and invention occurs in the other direction. Fiction has long been a safe haven for writers who want to describe real events without making enemies, invading privacy or getting accused of libel. It’s impossible to know how many novels are really memoirs by authors who chickened out when they got to the tough scenes.

Oksana Marafioti, who will be speaking at the memoir conference and whose memoir, American Gypsy, is due out from Macmillan later this year, is among the brave. “Just wrote the most difficult scene of my entire memoir,” she posted on Facebook the other day. “The one I’ve been avoiding for two years. Let’s see how many people will chase me with pitchforks for this.” An aspect of memoir that writers don’t truly appreciate until they begin telling their own stories is that nothing happens in a vacuum. If you reveal your own secrets, it’s next to impossible not to reveal other people’s, too.

What binds all genres together is “story.” Whether we’re picking up a newspaper or the great American novel, it’s “story” we expect. Whether writing is based on hard facts, teased out of hazy memories, or extrapolated from shards of ancient pottery, we want the point. No matter how “true” an author’s material is, he still has to organize it, choose which elements to keep and which to discard, and then mortar the whole thing together with his own prose. In other words, every writer must invent and create, even when writing “the truth.”

Even though I have no plans to write another memoir, I’m looking forward to spending a day hearing from four authors and a literary agent who have immersed themselves in its intricacies.  I’m writing fiction these days, but if I peeled away the made-up names and imaginary places, I’d have to admit that the skeletons left behind came straight out of my own closet.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The ubiquity of memoir

  1. Megan and Geoff, This is a thoughtful piece of writing, and “story” does reach to the core of what we, as readers, really want. Tell me a good story. We may react a bit differently based on our belief that it is either true or made-up, but in the end, what we want is to be entertained with a story. And story has to come from somewhere. Each year of our lives add another layer and more experiences to draw from, even if we think we’re simply creating out of thin air. We’re not.

  2. Megan,
    I will be attending the conference next month. I read the above and my question is this. Yes, our story intersects with others’ sotries, so how much of their story is necessary? I’m thinking it’s the amount needed to further your plot, unless you want to bury someone with their own escapades. Would that be correct thinking? There may be no need to embellish any if the issues lend themselves to over the top anyway. Secrets have a way of growing on their own in the mind of the reader, right? Kind of like “less is more?”

  3. Pingback: The Las Vegas Review of Books | The Nevada Review

  4. I loved this piece, and I love the concept for this site. I’ve got a piece I’m working on to post, if it passes muster, but until then, I’ll just keep checking in, and recommending others do the same. Well done, this is another great resource for readers and writers in Nevada.

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