Pain in Memoir

“When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.” ~Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

I have been in graduate school for the better part of the past three-and-a-half years with a year-long break, which I spent abroad. Much of my studying has focused on the genre of memoir: reading it, writing it, talking about it. I’ve always enjoyed reading within this genre and a few years ago it somehow came about that I was writing a book-length memoir of my own. I’ve taken many “breaks” from that bigger project to work on smaller, essay-length memoir pieces.

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The Ethics of Memoir Writing

In a publishing world that includes the likes of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, facts, speculation, and imagination can be so blended into one book, which causes more than a little confusion and controversy. Nowhere is that concern more necessary or weighty than in the memoir genre. One looks for memoir in the nonfiction section of bookstores and libraries, but as Thomas Larson points out The Memoir and the Memoirist, memoir is not nonfiction in the same sense that autobiography is. Dialogue has to be recreated from memory, and places and characters need dramatization in order to satisfy the reader. To borrow from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, memoir is “composed,” rather than an arbitrary collection of facts thrown together chronologically. This blend of dramatized nonfiction is messy work for both writer and reader. Which personas are trustworthy ones?

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