Memoir-arrhea

Too many, and that’s not just a fact but a sadness. I was sitting once with an editor who said to a group of would-be writers: “If you want to write a memoir, get over yourself. No one’s interested.” I’ll not forget Janna’s line.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.

What’s changed?

Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

The author of this piece, Neil Genzlinger, speaks of grade inflation on life experiences. Having parents and a childhood doesn’t qualify you for a memoir. No one needs to experience your pain: that’s sadism nor memoir. Imitation of others doesn’t make you a memoirist. And he suggests making yourself the least important character in the memoir.

Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.

Well done, Neil. And we are folks who read memoirs.

Do you read memoirs? Got a good one to recommend? Read any bad ones? Why were they bad? Big one: What qualifies someone to write a memoir?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://twitter.com/Craigcottongim Craig Cottongim

    I’m presently reading one of Robb white’s memoirs (he has two). He was a missionary’s child and grew up to become an author. I’m reading White’s memoir because I remember reading his fiction as a kid & I’d like to write.

    You might enjoy his quote on the writing-life: The fact that I am a writer is not because I’m a genius, nor have a great talent, nor even that accusation of well-wishers, ‘flair.’ I have rigid discipline. When working for DuPont as a construction engineer in the miserable snow of New Castle, Pennsylvania, I came back every night to one dank room in a boarding house and wrote–every night–from eight until two in the morning. Even now, when I don’t have to anymore, I come into this elegant office . . . at eight in the morning and go to work.”

  • http://www.sexlessinthecity.net Anna Broadway

    Speaking as a memoir author (in which case, I may already be guilty), I don’t read many, but two that stand out are Elisabeth Elliot’s “Passion and Purity” and Kathleen Norris’ “The Virgin of Bennington.” In their own ways, each of those books was a valuable example of how someone might deal with life-challenges similar to what I found myself going through. And there was an honesty about them – not in the sense of choosing to indiscriminately bare all, but of being honest about all the things important to the story. It made those books ring true. Norris’ book also offers a fascinating portrait of the New York poetry scene in the 70s and a glimpse at how the writing life begins that was very instructive for me as a new-to-New-Yorker, trying to figure writing and intellectual life out, post-grad school.

    In terms of bad or mediocre memoirs I’ve read, the most consistent problem is a lack of narrative arc, an overarching sense of story that ties all the vignettes together and keeps my interest. Maybe that frustration makes me a bit old-fashioned, but I like to have a sense of where the character is going and why the particular scenes I’m reading were selected. I want some kind of conflict, something that persuades me to keep reading. In a good memoir, I’m not sure there’s an enormous narrative difference from a novel. It should tell a good story – and may even leave you with something that somehow helps you live your own life a little better.

    I also think that memoirs, as a genre, have a certain advantage in terms of credibility. Before I had the idea for my book, “Sexless in the City,” I was thinking of doing a book on sexuality that would be more third-person and academic. But when I thought about the things I wanted to say, it seemed like people would attack them as hard or unreasonable. However, once I began to think of having that conversation in the frame of a memoir, things changed. I could now say, in effect, “Yes, I agree this is difficult, but I’ve done it, I’m doing it, and while it’s not easy, it is nonetheless possible.”

  • Phil N

    2 memoirs I’ve read in the last few years.

    Snowball, Warren Buffet’s mammoth life story. Very interesting. Great read.

    All things at one, Mika Bzerzenski, less than great.

  • http://www.evangelicalmonk.com/apps/blog/show/4960802-some-hauerwas-to-start-the-day Bill

    One of the best I’ve read – Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child. Rarely tho do I read memoirs unless they are the early Fathers.

  • http://melbournechurchofchrist.org/ Steve

    If you want to read what is actually a memoir and that will stimulate you intellectually and keep you out of useless dribble, I would recommend:

    Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester

  • Steve Billingsley

    I do believe that our life stories are important, but not necessarily to a wider audience. The experience of writing one’s own memoirs might be a nice exercise in self-discovery. But if you want to just write your thoughts about life in general, write your own blog. It’s free, it’s easy and anyone who cares can come read it.

  • http://www.twocities.org Dave Moore

    I did a PBS special with William F. Buckley. My interview covered a number of themes, one of which fits your category: Nearer, My God.

  • http://www.travismamone.net Travis Mamone

    Crap, and I’m writing a memoir right now, too!

  • http://anewkindofminister.blogspot.com Cody Stauffer

    My thoughts are, if someone is willing to publish it and you are willing to write it, why not? It might not be any good, but I guess that is for others to decide. It’s like the person in an earlier comment mentioned- someone who is willing to sit down and do the work of writing is working on the craft, WHATEVER it is they are writing, and probably sacrificing some good time to do so. And if someone wants to pay you for it and put it in print, why not? Or if you are willing to put up the money to put it in print, then it’s you’re right. Hopefully you learn something in the process and maybe you get better, and hopefully you can take some helpful criticism as well.

  • http://www.susanisaacs.net Susan

    As someone who sold a memoir this piece hits home. It couldn’t be more true. But I also know for myself I got exhausted by self-help and advice books, particularly in christian publishing. I didn’t need one more book on “how to be better.” People gravitate toward Story. Jesus told parables. The bible is populated with stories. We flock to the movies looking for meaning; and lately I’d rather watch “The King’s Speech” or “Lord Of the Rings” than sit through another hour-long sermon dissecting some exegetical minutiae.

    But you make a very good point. In my writer’s class I was constantly challenged to be as specific as possible with the details of my life, so that they would be vivid to the reader. On the other hand, if I didn’t transcend my personal experience and connect it to bigger issues and universal experiences, I didn’t do my job. I made a lot of such mistakes in my first book. I hope I will do better on my second one.

  • http://mrshields.com Adam Shields

    I feel the same. I read and review a lot of books and have read my share of memoirs. Many are quite good. But I think most of them are too neat. They have nice pretty bows because they are trying to prove a point, make and argument (or save someone). Especially the Christian ones.

    There are many people I would love to read memoirs, not because of their writing, but because of who they are. I have read some bad memoirs that I still found valuable. And I have read some great writing that left me wondering what the point is.

    I am really looking forward to reading Eugene Peterson’s but not sure who else.

  • Gloria

    To add to comment 11, it is way to obvious in memoirs when the writer is trying NOT to be all nice and pretty as if that is the point of their memoir.

  • http://arbevere.blogspot.com Allan R. Bevere

    I read Hauerwas’ Hannah’s Child, mainly because I am interested Stanley since I was his student. But other than that, I have read no other memoirs in my entire life. By the way, I don’t like those standard Christmas letters I get every year from some folks going on about themselves and their families either. It’s rather like getting the annual memoir from the same person; and I have never written one because I cannot imagine that anyone is remotely interested in what’s happened to me and my family in the past year. It seems terribly presumptuous.

    Snarky, I know.

  • http://mwerickson.wordpress.com Matt Erickson

    I think there is a mixture of positive and negative motivations for the writing and reading of memoirs. On the positive side, we all like to hear another person’s story. Hearing from another person, even through print, helps us feel connected and affirms our shared humanity.

    On the negative side, I believe we all have a deep desire to know each other’s secrets out of bent curiosity. Some memoir writing and reading can verge on a type of voyeurism. That is, we seek to connect with another out of self-interest, giving the appearance of intimacy while the action is completely devoid of true intimacy.

    In response to the request, my favorite series of memoirs come from Frederick Buechner:
    - The Sacred Journey
    - Now and Then
    - Telling Secrets
    - The Eyes of the Heart

  • http://abisomeone.blogspot.com Peggy

    First of all, thanks to Matt @ #14 … your thoughts are right on the money.

    I was privileged to edit my father’s memoir, which we self-published, as a way to hear his “review” of his life. He called it “My Story, as I Remember It” — and it gives insight to who he was and how he came to serve in so many diverse ways around the world.

    It was a way to pull his life together and share it with those who had journey together with him. It is a way for my children to get to know a grandfather who will pass from this life (his ability to communicate has already gone) before they’re old enough to know him.

    It was a way for me, his sixth and youngest child, to hear the stories I was too young to understood, or the back story that was invisible to me … as well as those I had never heard. Particularly interesting were his stories of being in the Navy in WW II in the Pacific.

    I think we printed 70 hard cover for family (published in time for him to personally inscribe a copy for each of his six children and 17 grandchildren as we all gathered to celebrate my parent’s 60th anniversary) and 200 soft cover for friends and co-laborers, whether in business, community, Lions International, missions, churches, para-church organizations or Christian education. I still have a couple … for my grandchildren someday, maybe.

    What it did for everyone who read it, and what I challenged those who read it to do, was to realize that everyone does have a story … and it is worth telling to those who love you (and worth listening to if someone you love wants to tell it).

    The last section of Dad’s book was about the many amazing trips they took all over the world … something that being a bi-vocational church planter with six children doesn’t get to do very often. But Dad had a way of bringing you along on the trip — and if you had been to that place, it was like sharing the trip with him.

    Few that didn’t know Dad personally, or knew of him, would ever come to read his memoir. But helping him by editing his manuscript (yeah, I know all about how important it is to have an editor … lol 8) ) was a double blessing for me: in spending 17 months bringing his dream into reality, I got to preserve it for his family and friends … just as he was losing the ability to communicate.

    Lewis B. Smedes memoir, “My God and I” is hauntingly beautiful.

    Shelden Vanauken’s memoir, “A Severe Mercy” is profound.

    Madeline L’Engle’s memoir-trilogy is unusual and fascinating.

    Corrie ten Boom’s memoir, “In My Father’s House” is inspiring as the prequel to her “The Hiding Place” and “Tramp for the Lord”.

    Irina Ratushinskaya’s two-part memoir, “Grey is the Color of Hope” and “In the Beginning” should be required reading.

    …there are lots of honest, humble stories of God doing impossible things through simple, cracked Eikons … and they are worth finding and reading … and worth writing, too.

  • Anna

    I think what qualifies someone to write a memoir is the same as what qualifies someone to write a sermon. In both cases the receiver (reader/listener) is hoping to take away something, some knowledge, some story, probably both, that will enhance life rather than diminish it.

  • SamB

    I really enjoyed Shelden Vanauken’s memoir, “A Severe Mercy” too. It was deeply moving.

  • Ava

    _My Own Country_, by Abraham Verghese is the memoir of Dr. Verhghese’s experience as the first, and for a time only, doctor to treat AIDS patients in Johnson City, Tennessee in the early 1980′s. The disease is “an undiscovered country” at that time, and he struggles blindly with the rest of the medical world to find ways to buy more time for his patients. He writes of having to deal with prejudice and being surprised by grace in the local medical community. He grows to love his patients, and in the end is broken by the fact that all of them die. The memoir was published in 1994, but it is even more timely now because Johnson City became nationally known last year for its protests against having a mosque built within the city. Dr. Verghese is an Indian immigrant who grew to love the city and state, and it is interesting to read his insights on the Johnson City of 25 years ago.

  • John M

    Donald Miller seems to have successfully captured the feat of writing profound memoirs about an orinary life in a post-modern style that carries an ironic appeal and effectiveness.

  • Josh C

    to drive the point home of previous posters, Shelden Vanauken’s memoir “A Severe Mercy” is one of the best

  • alison

    My mom, for her 90th birthday, is writing her memoir. That is when a memoir should be written – when you near the end of the story of your life. Some people publish their second memoir before they’re 30. What can you possibly say at that age? Can’t we make it a general rule – don’t write your memoir until you’re over 65? Or write about your life, but change the names and call it fiction. I’m typing Mom’s story – a couple hundred pages of it – which will be distributed to all the offspring on her birthday later this year. I am finding out things about her that astonish me. My life will be better because my mom (and my late father, through my mom’s words) have made this contribution.

  • scotmcknight

    What makes for a good memoir is a good story and telling it well. Age plays catch up without the story.


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