Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What makes a good memoir?

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.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

Thank you for this post, Jerry. I knew whatever you’d write would be helpful, and I am pleased to see that I was right. I find it not only interesting but full of juicy nuggets of the attributes of good memoir. That you used three memoirs as examples is an additional benefit, because now I will try to read the two that are published. I might also search for the review you published in America.

I’m curious about the title of Saldana’s memoir, because until now, I’ve only encountered the term Bread of Angels in reference to the Holy Eucharist, the bread that has been changed into the Body & Blood of Jesus by the priest in Catholic Mass.

I am especially interested in The Memory Chalet because I had a good friend who suffered and died from ALS. I visited him at his home outside of Ghent, Belgium, in 2001 when he was wheelchair bound but still had a year and a half to live. We had met and worked together on a project in the 1972 – 1974 time period, then kept in touch over the years until he contacted me and told me the bad news a year or so before my visit. I am very interested to read what Mr. Judt had to say.

The blurring of fiction and non-fiction also caught my eye because of a telephone conversation I had with the writer Michelle Morano. I came across an essay of hers in an anthology of best essays of the year; maybe the year was 2006 or 2007. In the Subjunctive Mood, first published in her book Grammar Lessons, Translating a Life in Spain, uses examples of correct and incorrect uses of that mood in the Spanish language to tell a story about a woman’s troubled relationship with a man. She used the subjunctive to tell the story in what I consider an artful and quite interesting manner.

After I obtained the book I made email contact with her and that led to a phone conversation she was generous enough to give me. In that conversation she opened my eyes to the fact that in writing my memoir about the times I spent working in Spain I would actually be writing fiction. No matter how hard I’d try to write things exactly as they happened, I would really only be able to write my best recollection of those things.

The notion that a writer’s audience is also a fiction is a new one for me. This, too, will help as I try to put a good memoir together.

I take note also that you did not use the words narration, or exposition. I suspect that is because you feel those details, the proportion of each in a memoir, are subordinate to the characteristics you mentioned.

The 8th paragraph sums things up very nicely for me, voices alive with enthusiasm, writers undergoing changes, there is a journey in progress, and clear, often poetic prose. Sounds like a winning combination!!

Thank you again for writing this!