The uses and abuses of memoir criticism

Say whah?

I suppose some — perhaps many — memoirs are like that, but definitely not all, and certainly not mine.

Not symbolic?

Mine (in process) is lyrical and poetic, with symbolism (subtle symbolism, not glaring, hackneyed symbolism…if I do say so myself) at its very core. Whether a memoir successfully uses symbolism depends mightily on the writer’s skill in using it in reference to their own lives as opposed to a made up one.

Perhaps I am an oddball here. I have a saying I frequently repeat (because it’s true) — my life has always been poetic; sometimes it even rhymes. And just as with symbolism in poetry or fiction, the meaning of that poetry keeps changing with my own new perspectives and those of my readers. But I hardly think I am all that unique.

In fact, there are certain stories that are best told through symbolism — particularly those that broach immediacy in retelling tales of extreme trauma.

I have a mini-story — a scene, really — that I always thought was a dream I believed I had had at age 5 and remembered as a dream all my life. (Who remembers throughout their lives a dream they had at age 5? That alone should suggest something else was going on!) I dreamt I was trapped in a dungeon, being forced by my wicked “stepmother” to eat baby alligators. It took until the day after my mother died in 2013 for me to understand that it wasn’t a dream, it was my child’s mind holding onto a memory in the only way a child could tolerate remembering — that is, without descending into near full blown insanity until I was old enough and strong enough to realize the real-life referent for that symbolism.

Symbolism tells the tale without descending into gory (and distracting, not to mention boring) detail. Making it explicit would destroy its emotional power and its “beyond the particular” of individual personal experience. Literary folks know that is exactly the same purpose of symbolism in fiction and poetry.

The idea that a memoir must be written a certain way is laughable. A memoir may have the same qualities as any novel if the author writes it that way and has the skill to do so. I suppose traditional memoirs might fit those descriptors, but the memoir form has changed dramatically in the past few decades. In short, it appears that the critics of memoir discussed here have set up straw persons in order to knock them down.

The memoir’s usefulness as “self help” isn’t actually unique to the memoir. Whether a novel is useful as such depends on the reader and how she reads, not so much the author. I have sought in memoir, fiction, AND poetry narratives that have helped me figure out how to live a meaningful life; especially how to survive trauma and the impact it has on every corner of one’s life. I have deliberately sought out fiction that, as Quakers say, “speaks to my condition.” An example of fiction: Dorothy Allison’sBastard Out of Carolina; of memoir, Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. As I note in my essay “The Falsehood of Memoir as Narcissism Trope,” published here on Medium, the primary difference (for my purposes) between fiction and memoir can be seen in the different uses I have for each:

We can read Bastard out of Carolina and know that the main character survives and grows despite (even perhaps because of) her dreadful childhood. But what she does to survive is only imaginary to the reader, until we learn from Allison’s memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, that the bones of the story actually happened, and a successful writer emerged from that dreadful childhood.

“Self help” need not manifest itself in advice, but rather can exist within stories (both fiction and non) wherein the subject struggles directly with conditions and is changed by that struggle. And the ending need not be “she lived happily ever after” in order for it to qualify as teacher, because stories where failure is a central feature help us learn how not to live.

That is, if the reader chooses to approach stories in that way.

Has only one voice?

Some memoirs are built on both interviews of others as well as on the author’s own story. As the author weaves her life into the stories her subjects tell, she draws personal meaning that is both similar to and different from the stories told by interview subjects. Two such that I think of immediately: Michelle Norris’s The Grace of Silence: a Family Memoir (excerpt); and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Hiroshima in the Morning. Originally intended to be a standard non-fiction book based on stories interviewees told her about surviving the devastation of the only (so far) two nuclear bombs ever dropped on human beings, Hiroshima in the Morning also ended up as a narrative about the impact of her work on her motherhood and marriage. (Excerpt).

In fact, the only necessary difference between fiction and memoir is that the first is made up and the second is not (mostly, not counting composite scenes required for literary economy). All the other qualities of fiction may also be found in the memoir, depending on how the author chooses to write it.

Now, I am sure someone out there is objecting that true art is valuable in its own right, and by that claim summarily dismisses the memoir for its “self help” qualities. Humbug! I filed away for test-taking purposes only that traditionalist’s claim that art serving a useful purpose is somehow suspect as “not very artful.” That idea occupies the same, now dusty, unused file of the traditionalist’s canon of male writers.

All in favor of the lively diversity of women’s writing (particularly memoir) that enriches my reading shelf.

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Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.

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Georgia NeSmith

Georgia NeSmith

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Retired professor, feminist, writer, photographer, activist, grandmother of 5, overall Wise Woman. Phd UIA School of Journalism & Mass Communication, 1994.