Friday, January 29, 2010

Enough about Me, Let's Talk about Me

Yesterday the Senior Adult Fellowship from church hosted me, and, delighted with them and with the three varieties of Jell-O salad I found at the event, I urged each and every one of them to write his (or her) memoir. As a gift to his offspring and descendants on down the line. Now, I didn't urge every last person to write his memoir and then foist it on the world, just on those whom it would be most likely to interest.

And sooner or later, our family histories interest us. Maybe because we interest us, and family histories are extensions of our own story. My husband's aunt recently wrote a memoir of the family's early years, growing up homeless in the Depression with their amazing, they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to mother, and believe you me, every family member was glued to the couch last Christmas, reading that memoir. What can we say? We love to read about us.

Perhaps because of our own self-absorption, other people's self-absorption can annoy. Since it isn't polite to talk about ME all the time, and I'm not super interested in talking about YOU all the time, we agree, when we read books, to talk about a third person. Here's where memoirs get tricky.

After all, what is a publicly-published memoir but one person's conviction that his life is so inordinately thrilling that you will want to know about it? The literary equivalent of a stage-hogging monologue. At least with a biography, you have one other person (i.e., the biographer) agreeing with you that your life is thrilling and worthy of taking up another person's precious free time. Don't get me wrong--some lives and memoirs are absolute treasures: THE COLOR OF WATER by James MacBride and THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeannette Walls I put in this category. But even with those, I wonder if it wasn't the writers' greater focus on larger-than-life parents and issues that makes them so compelling.

I have memoirs on the brain because of the whole JULIE AND JULIA thing, and then my book club's most recent read, Kathleen Flinn's THE SHARPER YOUR KNIFE, THE LESS YOU CRY. The book--about the author going to Le Cordon Bleu and marrying Mr. Perfect--garnered ratings from members ranging from 3.3 to 7 out of a possible 10, and, as a friend pointed out, three people who rated the book 5 or higher had not even found it compelling enough to finish. I plead guilty, Your Honor. And the most damning criticism? "I got tired of hearing how everyone thought she was so amazing and wonderful." True. This can barely be borne in a fictional character (rent ANNE OF GREEN GABLES and count how many times another character declares, "You're so wonderful, Anne!"), much less a real person writing about herself.

All of which is to say, if you're considering writing a memoir to share with the world at large, you may want to run it by a few, unbiased readers. Unfortunately, I cannot be one of those readers for you because I am so busy blogging about myself. Oh, and speaking of Me, I read today's Humbling Thought in an interview with Terry Castle, an 18th-century Lit professor at Stanford who was my advisor for all of one meeting before I switched to Renaissance: "Blogging is like having your own vanity press. What’s not to like?"


  1. Just discovered your blog. Would like to keep up. I wonder if you/your readers would be interested in this link? For anyone with a completed memoir interested in attracting an agent. Today's the deadline--whoops, not much time!