In memoir, fact and fiction aren’t always black and white, emotional truth may not match historical truth and ethics and aesthetics often collide.
A few months ago I moderated a live roundtable discussion on the topic for Cascade magazine.
On the panel were three writer/professors from the University of Oregon, one who writes memoir, one who analyzes and writes autobiography and one who refuses to write memoir. The fraud memoirist and former UO student Peggy Seltzer (a.k.a. Margaret B. Jones) was the inspiration for the debate.
Here’s a link to the magazine where you can read highlights from the discussion and listen to some of the most interesting parts. [Photo info: Laurie Drummond, Gordon Sayre, David Bradley and me. Photos by Jack Liu.]
One thing is clear: Memoirs continue to be wildly popular. The “memoir craze,” as its called, is still going strong. Here are a few memoirs on the New York Times best seller list this week:
- The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs, a memoir of his attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible;
- A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, about his life as a child soldier from Sierra Leone and his drug-crazed killing spree;
- Through the Storm, by Lynne Spears, you can imagine what it’s about;
- and don’t forget Stori Telling, the actress’s memoir.
We could argue whether the last two are actually memoirs. The label memoir usually implies that we’re going to learn part of the life story of a relative nobody. (And the fact that the Spelling book has been on the list for 18 weeks kind of freaks me out. How interesting could it actually be?)
The more memoirs that are published, the more dramatic they seem to be. Entertainment Weekly this summer put together a list of the types of lives captured in recent memoirs: A child of a woman who left the convent and assumed a false identity. A man who double dates with his recently widowed father. A woman who survived an unhealthy religious fixation (on top of having an eating disorder).
Every potential memoirist should check this list first to see if their life story has already been done. It’s a long (and quite hilarious) list.