Memoir As Me-moir?

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?

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