My friend Ned, a regular contributor to this blog, thanks to his many thoughtful comments, suggested that I say something about what makes a good memoir. A big order; here goes.
Having edited a friend's story of his life in America as an immigrant who still loves his native land, and having read two memorable books in the past year or so, I can say that all three, though widely different, are, above all, honest and interesting. They hold the readers' interest because something happens: they go beyond being a simple, chronological narrative that focuses on the individual writer.
First, my friend's immigrant narrative, was written mainly for his family; but people like me, outsiders to his life, can find many life lessons here, including fascinating insights about Americans vis a vis Europeans as well as humorous cultural differences. What might seem like a family story of limited interest becomes a narrative that many readers will enjoy; they will see, when it is published, that what is personal is often universal.
My second example is "Bread of Angels," an amazing narrative of an American, a single young woman, Stephanie Saldana, who journeyed to Damascus alone in the middle of the Iraq war to learn Arabic and found herself also in the Syrian desert undergoing a dark night of the soul. As my review in America mentioned, the book reads like a novel. It is filled with faith and despair and love; a lot happens. The style is often poetic and memorable. The author chooses her words and crafts her sentences carefully so that, as a writing teacher, I can take pleasure not only in the vicarious experiences of someone in that dangerous part of the world but in the craft of writing.
So a memoir has to be well written. In the case of the late Tony Judt, whose final book, The Memory Chalet, this is taken for granted; he was an internationally known writer and gifted stylist. The book was produced in extremis, while the British historian was enduring the horrors of Lou Gehrig's disease, which meant that he had to dictate most or all of it since he gradually lost control of his muscles.
He planned and completed a series of separate episodes, 25 in all, loosely connected, and written at various times before his death nearly two years ago. It is an unusual memoir, with a candid but dispassionate account of his illness, yet filled with Judt's remembered experiences in many places, being happy.
This last example of a memoir is, like the man himself, distinctive, unconventional, showing that there are no rules about what form a memoir takes. My friend's narrative is a traditional, chronological account of his life; Saldana's is limited to one short period in a young life; Judt's is a series of memories, witty and unsentimental, a record of a brilliant life and career.
In all case, the readers encounter voices alive with enthusiasm. The writers undergo changes, both good and bad, and share their journeys with the reader in clear, often poetic prose. In their stories, something happens--many things, in fact--which hold the reader's interest.
The distinction between fiction and non-fiction gets somewhat blurred in good memoirs, it seems to me. Saldana's is a good example, not that I accuse her of fictionalizing her life, but in selecting the episodes and describing the people she met, she is, like all writers, re-imagining and re-inventing the past. Doesn't every writer do this?
I could go on about the genre of autobiography, from St. Augustine on down, and how the story of the self from A to B is always addressed to more than the self who is the subject; it's as if the writer-self is creating himself in words. And to talk about such personal writing is to raise the question of the audience and the fact that, as my Jesuit professor Walter J. Ong convincingly showed, every audience is a fiction. We imagine our readers just as we imagine our literary selves.
No wonder writing is a challenge; it remains in part a mystery, as words and sentences take on a life of their own and recount, in the case of memoir, nothing less than a human story.