The Intimacy of Memoir

Author Lee Kofman says: ‘Memoirists write directly about what matters to them, whereas fiction writers may sublimate their experiences and passions.’ The first half of her dictum is certainly true: memoirists are concerned with what matters to them.

Whole books are devoted to the second part of Lee’s hypothesis. But let’s look at memoir for a moment.

Lately I’ve been reading accounts by older writers of their childhood memories. However, the element that elevates memoir above the world of the purely memorable is tension. That is, when a particular drama is established in the narrative, as it is in fiction.

Most people experience conflict in their lives, but not everyone is in the business of revealing that to the world. Memoirist, however, are ‘all in’ with the personal reveal. The dilemma for them is how to remove narcissism from their tale and establish a detachment that serves a more universal purpose.

US writer Steve Almond advises, ‘When young writers ask me what they should be writing about I always tell them the same thing. I tell them to write about what they can’t get rid of by other means.’

The story is about the ‘thing’ that won’t go away no matter how much counselling, denial or meditation we engage in. And nor should it. This ‘unsettling’ thing – as one writer calls it – is there for a reason.

A burr in my saddle is the treatment of war veterans upon their return home – certainly in Australia. This fury was spiked when I was twenty-six and my father was dying in a veterans’ hospital. It was my inciting incident, which you can read about here. It was the moment when what I thought was so, was not.

What ‘can’t be rid of’ by other means is a good place to start any writing – especially memoir.

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