So many people use the word memoir, especially these days, and I wish there was another word for what I mean when I say memoir. I am determined to find a new word and am sure that I will, but it may take a long time.
I say I’m a writer and people ask, what do you write, and I say memoir, and then they think I’ve written a memoir and that's it. Why would anyone write more than one memoir, right? Or they think that I want to write a memoir because I’ve done something interesting like climbed Mt. Everest, or lived with a smart animal.
In the same vein, I hate it when, in response to hearing that someone has done something unusual, people say, "Now he should write a memoir!" As if that's what memoir were about. As if a good memoir is about something interesting that someone has done. That's a mistake that's easy to make: writing memoir that assumes what has happened in a person's life is more interesting than the person themselves. It's as wrong as someone saying, "Why should I write memoir? Who'd be interested in what I've done?"
I was walking with a friend a few days ago, someone I like a lot. He had just finished his manuscript about a very intense period of his life with a dying parent. “But who needs another book about a dying parent?” he laughed, even though I knew this was one of the saddest, darkest, most definitive times of his life.
“I don’t read a memoir for what it’s about,” I answered. “I read a memoir for what it tells me about the writer.”
Every memoir – every good one – is a self-portrait, and the more blatant and honest it is the better.
Yeah, but what about the quality of the writing, I hear my critical friends asking. It’s not enough to be blatant and honest. Actually, it is.
There are other memoirs that claim to be blatant and honest just because they spatter blood and guts all over the page. I'm not talking about that, though it works sometimes. I have found from writing that honesty is a pretty slithery thing. It is subtle. You have to really find ways to look at yourself, your past, where and what you came from to really start to draw a self-portrait that has any meaning. This is much scarier than revealing the simple fact that your father fucked you, which is scary enough.
My favorite memoir I’ve found this year? When Skateboards Will Be Free by Said Sayrafiezadeh. We have invited him to present at the Woodstock Memoir Festival this year and we are thrilled that he has said yes.