Has the Memoir Genre Developed a Pain Complex?

Photo by  Polina Sergeeva

 Has a pain complex developed around our favored genre of memoir? Someone recently observed that to be interesting a memoir has to be about pain and suffering. Perhaps I exaggerate the intent of that remark, but as I think about it, I’ve been hearing variations on that theme in a number of places lately. For example,

“People are interested in reading about struggle and how you overcame obstacles.”

“My life is so ordinary. Nobody would want to read about it.”

“Conflict. That’s what sells.”

Maybe that last statement is the crux of the matter. “What sells.” Or more precisely, what publishers are buying in hopes that we also will. Scanning down the current Amazon “best-selling memoir list” search, I see titles like Chronicles, Volume 1, by Bob Dylan, Realding Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi, Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama, Night, by Elie Wiesel, It Stops with Me, by Charleen Touchette, and An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison. None of these books or the many other titles with them are what you’d call light reading.

While these stories are noble and inspiring ones, definitely worth a read, if you don’t have a “survivor story” of your own, you may feel discouraged from even trying to write about your life, even if you have no plans for commercial publication.

Take heart! In response to a challenge to think of any memoir that was about something positive, I recalled my husband's Uncle Walter, who hand wrote stories about his experience growing up in Ray, Arizona 100 years ago, "...because I lived the life every boy dreams of, and want to tell people about it." Every paragraph of this short treatise was funny as heck, and totally delightful. Come to think of it, in his last year, at 96, he claimed that his life couldn't have been better. That's how he thought. That's how he lived. Every day of his life. He was an extraordinary ordinary man who exemplified humility and inspired hundreds of friends, colleagues and family members.

Walter’s memoir was never intended for publication. But off the top of my head, I recall Annie Dillard's An American Childhood, Haven Kimmel's A Girl Called Zippy, and Laurie Jakiela's Miss New York Has Everything as delightful tributes to unique families, communities and the times. I've read each of them more than once, and I no desire to reread The Glass Castle in spite of admiring it enormously.

While I whole-heartedly support writing to heal and transcend the past and inspire the world with the story of that experience, this search made me acutely aware of the importance of documenting the good times as well. Let's look for ways to make reading about pleasure as compelling as reading about pain. Find the tension, find the humor, find the story arc and write in scenes ... It's got to be there, and got to be possible. I believe we bring about what we think about, collectively as well as personally. We owe it to the world to develop a habit of thinking about what is good, cheerful, healthy and whole more often than not. 

Write now: write a scene or anecdote about a positive adventure you had. It doesn't need to be splashy or sensational — just something that challenged you. Play up the tension and humor. Make it a compelling read in spite of the lack of pain and suffering. 

1 comment :

Karen Walker said...

Yes! Yes! Yes! Right on, Sharon.
WE need positive, uplifting stories so much more than pain and suffering. There's a place for those as well. But not every memoir writer is a survivor. And that's okay.