My English capstone class focuses on the study of memoir. Our class, comprised of one professor and six students, gathers each week around a conference room table to discuss and to analyze the practice of self-writing. Our studies cover an array of works, ranging from fiction to personal essays to memoirs. We’ve read Marilynne Robinson’s fiction novel Gilead, Joan Didion’s personal essay In Bed, and Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club. Supplementary to reading major works, our professor throws in theoretical texts that examine the practice of writing memoir, the multitude of creative choices involved and the tools needed to create a successful piece. The narrating “I” vs. the narrated “I.” The incorporation of historical episodes. The methods of humor, spirituality, reflection. And the ever-popular “show don’t tell.” We read, we analyze, we discuss. We gather the information and the skills we’ve collected from our studies to create our own pieces of self-writing. At the end of the term, we will culminate our capstone class and our careers as English majors with our own memoirs.
I’ve studied memoir and creative non-fiction in a multitude of English classes throughout my college career. I struggle with my own self-writing, specifically with selecting a piece of my memory to analyze or an episode of my life to portray to my audience. I’m still trying to find my groove with the practice and to discover my unique voice. But I think that’s why I’m so drawn to reading memoir and to the work itself. I’m struck by the art of self-writing and the way writers creatively craft and portray episodes of their lives. I admire David Sedaris’ self-deprecating humor. I respect Joan Didion’s journalistic approach to recounting her personal memories. Right now, I am particularly enthralled with Mary Karr’s writing after studying The Liars’ Club in my English class. She’s a creative genius who carefully depicts incidents of her turbulent childhood with vivid details and captivating descriptions. She takes on a child’s point of view to portray the turmoil of her youth, presenting the darkest of moments with poignant clarity and without vilifying any particular character.
My capstone class studies great works of memoirs whose authors shine brightly in the world of their genre. However, another side to the worlds of memoir and autobiography is emerging. With the rise of popular culture comes the rise of a new wave of memoir, where individuals with present-oriented stories publish books about themselves. These individuals write autobiographies or memoirs for an immediate audience by pinpointing a story that sells, that grabs the public’s attention, that exposes scandal or hardship, and mass produces the book across the country. First came the celebrities, publishing books about their lives in Hollywood and rise to fame, such as Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants. Next came musicians, athletes, politicians, reality television stars, etc. Now regular Americans who believe they have a compelling story to tell are publishing memoirs about their life
struggles and overcoming hardships. Don’t get me wrong—many of these books are interesting, insightful, and entertaining. But the books contain transient subject matter and poor technical writing skills. These new memoirs and autobiographies top Amazon’s bestseller list, which drives the books’ popularity up even further because readers go to the list to select a read that fellow Americans are reading as well. The books on the list are entertaining and lack the threatening nature of more powerful, well-written books, such as Mark Twain’s autobiography. I, personally, would select Amy Poehler’s new autobiography Yes, Please over Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir as a summer beach read. But if I wanted a compelling story told through exquisite prose, I would choose to read Grant. The pop-culture oriented subjects of today’s memoirs and autobiographies entertain and enthrall us, but after a few years they are forgotten and left to collect dust on our bookshelves, while Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir withstands the test of time and continues to be read over one hundred years after his death.
The rise of transitory memoirs and autobiographies urges me to wonder what will happen to memoirs from Mary Karr or Joan Didion, the well-written memoirs that carry weight and hold substance in the literary world, over time. Books such as Life is Not a Reality Show: Keeping it Real with the Housewife Who Does it All by reality television star Kyle Richards and Kardashian Konfidential by the Kardashian sisters are on bookstands and best-seller list. The pop culture memoirs delve into the superficial lives of reality television stars and grasp the public’s attention. The present-oriented autobiographies feature an entertaining story, but the fundamental elements of the writing itself are subpar and poorly crafted. The temporal works of our society’s current politicians, athletes, and celebrities fail to incorporate general wisdom or relatable life stories that establish a direct connection with the audience and contextualize the subject matter so much that in a few years, the works may become obsolete in the eyes of the American public. A variety of factors contribute to a book’s longevity and success, just as the case with songs, fashions, and even sports. Predicting what will achieve longevity in our society is almost impossible. Perhaps current sensations do indeed contain the gravity and wit to captivate the audience’s attention throughout time. While I prefer the memoirs of Mary Karr, Joan Didion, and the likes, I wonder how the rise of popular culture will affect the literary memoir. Will the substantial works of Didion and Karr withstand the test of time, like the memoirs by Mark Twain and Ulysses S. Grant?
What do you think? Which type of memoir do you prefer? Will the memoir greats, like Mary Karr, become overshadowed by reality television stars? Where do you see the practice of self-writing in 10 years?