Memoir matters because we matter. Our stories matter. Memoir is an art form no less than any other literary form. One aspect of its artistry is that it is bound by the truth — subjective truth perhaps, but still the truth. Art forms that have boundaries — sonnets, plays, Swiss watches, and Haiku – create special problems. Solving those problems is a matter of artistry.
The first piece of writing that I ever had published was a slice of my life — a memoir sliver. I was a first-year student at the University of Miami, majoring in communications. A boy befriended me, and we went to the cafeteria to eat. He offered to buy me lunch, and being an impecunious college student, I accepted. I had only taken a few bites of my sandwich when campus police showed up and hauled the boy away. It seems he had bought our lunches with a stolen meal card. I never saw him again, but it gave me the impetus to write a short personal essay that the editor of the campus newspaper loved and promptly printed with a memorable illustration of a hapless student being yanked out of the cafeteria by enormous police officers.
I should have seen that first publication as a sign, but I didn’t. I went on to write everything but memoir for many years. I wrote scripts for commercials, scripts for sales and government films, short stories, interviews, journalism, book reviews, poetry, and anything that anyone would pay me to write. Writing short stories challenged me the most at first because I didn’t realize how my own life was a gold mine of material. But eventually my stories became more and more autobiographical. Not all of them, of course, but enough that I began to spend more time digging around in that rich vein. After I gave birth to my daughter, I returned to the personal essay form — writing snapshots of the parenting life for the local newspaper or to read aloud on the local NPR station.
My first novel, like many first novels, has a strong strain of autobiography. I wrote three more novels after that. I borrowed pieces from my life for those books, but I also developed my fiction-writing techniques and played with plotting. Ten years after my first novel came out, the memoir I wrote about taking care of my mother was published. In a way I’d come full circle. I have often said my memoir is the sequel to Sweet Fire, my first novel.
It took me a while to realize that the years I spent taking care of my mother had the potential to be the material for a book. Why would anyone care, I wondered? But as I began to talk about my experiences with other people and noticed how many of them were also immersed in the aging parent adventure, I realized we need to tell these stories. I needed to hear the stories of other caregivers, and I knew they would want to hear mine. What surprised me later was how many people who were not caregivers were also interested in the story.
In writing the memoir, I summoned those skills I’d learned in those years of writing fiction, poetry, journalism, and personal essays. So often the same rules apply: choosing the right word, selecting the telling image, finding the voice. But memoir has an added task: selection. Why this day and not that? Why this image and not another? Do I need to include this anecdote? Will it hurt someone if I do? Do I do it anyway? How can I structure my material so it has an arc? So many decisions to make. So many puzzle pieces to put together.
A memoir is not real life just as a photograph is not real life. It is, rather, an artistic rendering of real life. Memoir matters because life matters. And art matters. Memoirists, sometimes joyfully and sometimes in utter despair, commit themselves to the service of both.