Memoir is a genre of non-fiction written in the first person about a slice of life. There are subgenres of memoir and literary narrative non-fiction with which a writer should know and see where their own writing fits. These subgenres are rather fluid and change across time with readers’ interests and current trends.
- Celebrity, athletic, political or public figure
- Mommy Dearest/Growing up dysfunctional
- Escape from religious extremism
- I’ll take you there memoirs
- I will survive memoirs
- Love and romance
- Family, friendship, and business relationships
- Workplace or career
- Exploration or adventure
- Addiction/recovery memoirs
These various types of contemporary memoirs are not mutually exclusive categories; any one memoir may be more than one type. For example, Eat, Pray, Love is both travel and spiritual as written by Elizabeth Gilbert. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is a chronological narrative of a trek across the Pacific Crest Trail and a memoir about grief over her mother’s death. Joan Didion has written two powerful grief memoirs. The Year of Magical Thinking is a now a classic recommendation for bereavement counselors to give widows to read and her more recent Blue Nights is a touching portrait of a grieving mother. And yet both are also very much like the rest of her literary narrative non-fiction writing in the “I’ll take you there” style. Joyce Maynard’s classic Looking Back captured the voice of an entire generation 40 years ago and is another example of the “I’ll take you there” kind of zeitgeist memoir. So, too, is Patti Smith’s more recent Just Kids, but it is also about grieving, her career as a musician and writer, and friendships, especially with Robert Mapplethorpe.
Alexandra Fuller has written memoirs of adventure and exploration in Africa with Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight and The Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness. And yet they are also memoirs of love, family, and growing up dysfunctional. ‘You are there’ in Rhodesia with her mother in the Jeep with the Uzi across her lap. Augusten Burroughs in Running with Scissors wrote a memoir about growing up with a mentally ill mother. These revelations about his parents’ behavior, their divorce, and its aftermath revive Christina Crawford’s Mommy Dearest style of confessional disclosures. Though Augusten Burroughs was not the child of a celebrity with a built-in platform. he changed his name after living until age 18 as Christopher Robison. Pooh. Close enough to Christopher Robinson to make an august son’s name from a father like William Burroughs. Much cooler to be associated with the beat writer of Junkie and Naked Lunch. Augusten Burroughs followed up with another memoir, Dry, about his own struggle with alcoholism and addictions. Drinking: A Love Story by Carol Knapp is a memoir about her affection and affliction for alcohol, but it’s also about her career as a journalist. Diablo Cody wrote her memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper after she started writing a column, “Pussy Ranch,” for City Pages in Minneapolis where she worked the Skyway Lounge off Hennepin Avenue.
One of the funniest memoirs I’ve read is Sara Benincasa, Agorafabulous: Dispatches from My Bedroom. And I’ve laughed hard at the writings of David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor who also write in this sub-genre. Benincasa’s memoir isn’t just humor, it’s an “I Will Survive” memoir. Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle and Kate Braestrup’s Here if You Need Me are both examples of survivor memoirs. Wall Street Journal reporter Amanda Bennett did survive her husband’s pancreatic cancer and wrote The Cost of Hope sold by the medical system to a nation of people whose loved ones get sick, even on the best health care insurance policies available to two working adult professionals. Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made readers laugh as she survives a divorce and a year living with her aging Mennonite parents, but her latest book, Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? is as much about love and middle aged romance as it is a spiritual journey.
Some of the most interesting memoirs fall into the category of escape from religious extremism: Deborah Feldman’s Unorthodox about leaving her Hasidic traditions, and Lucia Greenhouse coming to question Christian Science in her motherfathergod memoir. There are more forthcoming like The Witness Wore Red and the just released revelations in Beyond Belief about the Church of Scientology from the niece of David Miscavige, Jenna Hill. Malala Yousafzai just signed a contract for her memoir. Her story touched millions of hearts when she was shot on the streets of Pakistan for standing up for girls’ education. My former student and colleague, Adam Ellick, of the New York Times had cultivated a relationship with Malala and her father. Ellick had given her an iPad, which made her the envy of some and a target for others.
An escape, a journey, a transformation — these are the matters of memoir. Many of the recent farm memoirs follow a personal path to reduce their carbon emissions, increase their local fare, engage in physical labor, encounter wild life, farm animals, produce their own power, add veggie oil to their vehicles, raise free range chickens, go fishing, hunting, or butcher their own meat. The Dirty Life, Hit by a Barn and Goat Song are favorite examples from this subgenre. Food memoirs run the gamut from classics like Ruth Reichl’s Tender at the Bone and Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun to modern celebrity chefs like Gabrielle Hamilton who wrote Blood, Bones and Butter and Georgia Pelligrini in Girl Hunter. Food memoirs are not typically filled with recipes and those that have attempted to mix the genre of memoir with cookbook.
Memoir is a genre that doesn’t blend well with others. Self-help and memoir don’t mix as well as oil and vinegar. How-to and memoir make a poor pairing. Within the genre of memoir, mixing types and kinds is acceptable and encouraged.
What kind of memoir are you writing?
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My 124 year old reading club has chosen memoir as the theme for this year’s program. We have 28 members and on each Monday between October and early May we each give a researched paper on a book we have chosen from a list provided by a program committee of several members. My book is “I Feel Bad About My Neck” by Nora Ephron. I was having trouble because it didn’t feel like other memoirs I’ve read. This article was a great help in expanding my concept of what memoir could include and how much freedom there is within this genre. Susan Cheever is right, “I believe the memoir is the novel of the 21st century. It’s an amazing form we haven’t even begun to tap-we’re just getting started figuring out what the rules are.”