Recently, I finished Susan Ray Schmidt’s memoir of escaping the fundamentalist Mormon lifestyle she was born into. It was a powerful book. The author emotively describes her circumstances, creating, in me, a compulsion to read through to the end. And most reviewers were also caught up in the story of a young woman who triumphs over powerlessness. But, inevitably, some of the reviewers criticized the author for poor storytelling, and for the the length and structure of the book. To each his own opinion, of course, but I don’t expect somebody who has lived through an incredible experience to write in the vein of an Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate. However, I do expect the writing to be grammatical and clear so that the story will speak for itself. In my opinion, Susan Ray Schmidt clearly and grammaticaly tells her story.
This kind of criticism, having to do with story structure rather than the story itself, forces me to consider the intentions of memoir as a genre. Many people have attempted to categorize memoirs into subcategories, and their lists run anywhere from three basic types to numerous offshoots of larger categories. Generally, these categories look something like this: Travel, Confessional, Coming of Age, Survivor. As somebody who has read hundreds of memoirs, I opt for three overarching types or styles, which will, by necessity, blur and overlap. But mine have more to do with intention than with subject.
Memoir of the Incredible/Unusual/Authentic Experience
As I’ve already suggested, this kind of memoir is driven by the story rather than the eloquence of the writing. The authors have lived through incredible experiences and have committed them to paper, either because of outward suggestion/influence or inward compulsion. Multiple, smaller categories of memoir will fit under this banner because the intention is the same with each: to relate an impactful story. The author might have hiked across Africa alone in her twenties (normally called Travel), or survived to tell the world what it means to live with a rare congenital disorder (normally called Survivor). In the book at left, the author lived through an unusual experience, as a Western woman who married a Bedouin and moved into his cave with him. When she fell in love with this man, she had no intention of writing a memoir, but rather of learning to raise a family in a nontraditional way. This is key: these authors experience life without the intention of writing a book about it.
The Journalist’s Memoir (or The Narcissist’s Memoir)
This kind of memoir will have dual intentions. First of all, these are professional writers–or they hope to be. They write book or article proposals, not because they’ve already lived an experience, but because they want to live it. They have a thirst for adventure that prompts them to develop what-if ideas. What if I lived with the untouchable class in India for a year? What if paddled down the Amazon with nothing but a packpack of supplies? I love this type of memoir–I would have to say it’s my favorite because it’s less hit and miss than the category above, or the one below. But, earlier, I brought up the dual intentions inherent to this type of memoir. These authors also need advances to pay for their experiences, and so their experiences are not quite as authentic as those of the previous category. These authors are mercenary memoirists. This occasionally leads to a kind of narcissism I’ve seen of late with the Elizabeth Gilberts of the world, who propose travel adventures for their own self-fulfillment and then stuff themselves with food in Italy and put it on their publishers’ tab, so to speak. I learn less about the world and how to cope with challenges, and more about doing what’s right for me. But the best of this type of memoir I’ve highlighted at left (one of my favorite authors, anyway). Robyn Davidson’s style is to propose a challenge for herself (traveling alone with camels, for example), or to engage with an unknown culture in a faraway land because she possesses that indomitable Viking spirit.
The Creative Writer’s Memoir
This third category is the one my frail attempts at memoir would fall into (click on the tag Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl to read them). The authors of these are often MFA or English department graduates, and their particular genius is in taking ordinary life events and turning them into profound, philosophical experiences that many can relate to. Often, these authors write Coming of Age memoirs: coming of age for a Guatemalan immigrant in the U.S., coming of age in a typical, but crazy American Midwest family, coming of age for a modern Jewish girl in New York. Or these authors might elevate a specific time period into a focused, but epoch look at history. I can’t count the number of memoirs/autobiographies I’ve read that capture the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth. I haven’t yet tired of reading about these pivotal decades, either. There was something magical about the world when it was on the verge of a new technological age. Airplanes used to be magic! But that’s what these authors do: they capture ordinary life and turn it into something profoundly spiritual, even if it’s only about the unstable life of one child who lived through a broken home (see This Boy’s Life at left)–or, ahem, a woman who worked in and hung out at espresso shops in the nineties.
If you’re a great reader of memoirs, perhaps you’re balking at my categories. But, for me, pinpointing the intention of each type of memoirist is important in understanding and rating/reviewing their books. Does the author clearly and emotively tell me her incredible story? Does the author’s thirst for adventure help me to understand the world better? Does the author’s window into the ordinary give me new insight into, or a profound vision of the human condition? Maybe, for the best memoirs, the answer is yes on all counts.