Why I Read Memoirs

I felt compelled to write this piece because I, being a giant nerd, don’t feel that non-fiction gets as much recognition as it should. 

As I previously mentioned in my review for All Gone, I have an affinity for memoirs. When I need advice, especially unbiased advice based on real life experience, I often buy a memoir that deals with similar issues. Advice from a stranger is much easier to handle than advice from a close friend; they aren’t invested in you, they don’t care if they’re pleasing you, and in the case of a memoir it’s certain that they don’t have to worry much about your response.

As a sub genre, memoirs are among the most frequently challenged forms of non-fiction. For one thing, memory isn’t entirely reliable, especially when the writer is referring to events long past. Another reason that they’re so frequently challenged is the fact that many memoirs are written to describe fantastic or irregular lives that don’t translate to be as believable as a more boring, mainstream lifestyle might. Lying, of course, is human nature, so there’s likely hundreds of memoirs that are riddled with created memories and ‘white lies’ that greatly affect the way that readers respond to the text as a whole. Knowing all of these things, seeing multiple memoirs cut down and shifted over to the fiction shelves (and James Frey getting kicked off of Oprah’s book list), and keeping human error in mind helps me to remember to take memoirs with a grain of salt. Everyone lies, often we lie without realizing it, be it a misquote (god only knows how many quotes are slightly different from their original statements in one memoir), or a conflict of opinion. I certainly don’t read a memoir the way that I read a scholarly article, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Another reason I pick up memoirs is that ever since I was tiny, I’ve wanted to live a life worth writing about. Memoirs are a writer’s way to bare their soul, show us their flaws, and be honest about the things that have happened to them. A flawed character is one thing, but a flawed person is another; we get the chance to see those flaws and understand the many aspects to each person’s personality and behavior from their perspective. I read memoirs because they’re tangible evidence that my life might be on paper someday, held in the hands of another reader who could learn from my many mistakes.

Memoirs are full of regrets and life lessons that someone has learned from. You can literally pick up any memoir and learn something from it, whether it’s what the author intended or not. When I read Khloe Kardashian’s memoir/self-help book Strong Looks Better Naked (reviewed here), I didn’t develop a strong love for the gym, but I did pick up some new healthier eating habits (I’m down 7 pounds so far) and realize that her writing style was very far from what I’d like my creative non-fiction to look like. Reading Russell Brand’s My Bookie Wook several years ago didn’t lead me to reevaluate my propensity for picking up prostitutes (mainly because I don’t have one), but it did show me that public figures are often just as flawed as we are. Celebrity memoirs are one thing, and I appreciate them greatly, but I do lean more in favor of more obscure memoirs like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is part memoir, part writing advice. I adore memoirs from bloggers and various other writers, (ie. Molly Wizenberg’s A Homemade Life).

Another thing that draws me to memoirs is the amount of agency that authors have with format, style, and layout (not that other genres don’t have wiggle room). Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is written in the form of a graphic novel, though it falls into the memoir category. Many writers include recipes, family photos, and more in their memoirs. The format varies from that of a traditional novel, that of a collection of essays, that of various other mediums, to that of a family album or notebook in some cases. Memoirs have beautiful personalities.

Side note; I cannot babble on and on about memoirs without mentioning Maya Angelou. She will always be one of my favorite authors, and I will forever remember the beautiful spirit of a woman who was willing to be absolutely honest about her flaws to the world. As a public figure, she has left a huge impression on our world, and her most famous autobiography/memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is without a doubt going to remain on the classics list for years to come. My love affair with Angelou’s writing certainly doesn’t end there; my absolute favorite work of hers is Letter to My Daughter, a collection of short essays written to the daughter she never had (basically, to the young women who read her works). I read it during a period in my life where I deeply needed her maternal role, even through print alone. I also adore Gather Together in My Name, which I believe to be excellent in part because she doesn’t leave out her mistakes. She mentions her entanglement with various scenes that she acknowledges as being wrong for her, she mentions her flaws and poor choices with candor. Angelou is a writer who has had a profound effect on my life as a reader, and I am excited to say I have another of her works on my To-Read shelf for this year.

I have shelved Beloved for the time being; I’ll be picking it back up eventually, but for now I’m going to start a new book for Friday’s review. Be well my babes! 

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