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The Memoir and the Memoirist

Reading and Writing Personal Narrative

Thomas Larson

Publication Year: 2011

The memoir is the most popular and expressive literary form of our time. Writers embrace the memoir and readers devour it, propelling many memoirs by relative unknowns to the top of the best-seller list. Writing programs challenge authors to disclose themselves in personal narrative. Memoir and personal narrative urge writers to face the intimacies of the self and ask what is true.

In The Memoir and the Memoirist, critic and memoirist Thomas Larson explores the craft and purpose of writing this new form. Larson guides the reader from the autobiography and the personal essay to the memoir—a genre focused on a particularly emotional relationship in the author’s past, an intimate story concerned more with who is remembering, and why, than with what is remembered.

The Memoir and the Memoirist touches on the nuances of memory, of finding and telling the truth, and of disclosing one’s deepest self. It explores the craft and purpose of personal narrative by looking in detail at more than a dozen examples by writers such as Mary Karr, Frank McCourt, Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Mark Doty, Nuala O’Faolain, Rick Bragg, and Joseph Lelyveld to show what they reveal about themselves. Larson also opens up his own writing and that of his students to demonstrate the hidden mechanics of the writing process.

For both the interested reader of memoir and the writer wrestling with the craft, The Memoir and the Memoirist provides guidance and insight into the many facets of this provocative and popular art form.

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Frontispiece

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Preface

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pp. xi-xii

For several years, I have wanted to write an essay on memoir, to immerse myself in my love of the form as writer and reader. My idea was to dwell on the period from now back to the late 1980s, when memoir burst forth sui generis from the castle of autobiography and the wilds of the personal essay. Like any...

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Acknowledgments

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pp. xiii-xiv

Gratitude goes to the many who helped steer me toward writing The Memoir and the Memoirist. Those from my groups (some of whose words and stories appear in these pages): Kay Sanger, Joan Mangan, Ollie McNamara, Paul Havermale, Sheila Fisher, Tami Dumai, Sue Norberg, Steve Montgomery, Linda Hutchinson...

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This Writing Life Now Is What I’ve Lived For: An Introduction

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pp. 1-10

It’s summer in Southern California, and I’m teaching a nine-week course, Writing the Memoir. Fifteen beginners have assembled, among them Chi, Patrick, Ana, Paul, and Kay; one’s a nurse, another’s a retired designer of women’s clothing, another’s with the city. They hail from towns like Ashtabula, Ohio, and Lubbock...

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1. From Autobiography to Memoir

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pp. 11-20

For the last century and a half, the world of life-writing, which includes biography, autobiography, memoir, and confession, has been dominated by the personal tale of a public figure, a life socially significant in his or her own time. Autobiographies issue from such luminaries as Ulysses S. Grant, Helen Keller, Malcolm...

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2. Discovering a New Literary Form

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pp. 21-32

Passionate, contrary, innovative, undefined: memoir today has the energy of a literary movement, recalling past artistic revolutions that initiated new ways of seeing. The form has cleared most of the first hurdles, among them the rap that memoir must be tied to family dysfunction. Memoir’s diverse topics and authors...

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3. The Past Is Never Over

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pp. 33-44

What many memoirists of the past twenty years have discovered— some following Woolf ’s lead—is how much the intervention of the rememberer, the person writing now, is pertinent to the work. Intervention may sound heavy-handed. But I mean it as the degree to which memoir writers are attentive to the interplay of the...

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4. The Voice of Childhood

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pp. 45-58

Sylvia Fraser builds a book-length structure by intercutting selected times and voices. Indeed, she forgoes narrating a sequence of childhood events because nothing is as memorable as the emotional ebb and flow around her father’s abuse. Tracking the temporal is less important than juxtaposing now and then. Why? The...

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5. Myth-Making in Memoir

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pp. 59-66

Psychologist John Kotre writes in his White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory that our contemporary view of memory goes against the old notion that memories sit “inertly in our minds the way they do on an audiotape or the shelves of a library” (37). This view challenges centuries of memory mariners...

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6. The Writer as Archeologist

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pp. 67-78

Memoirists often choose a life phase in which to position the singular relationship they are writing about. A phase, or distinct stage of development, is good because its limitation keeps the knight-errant author on track. And yet such a limitation can bedevil a writer, chiefly by unlocking other, equally important phases: If...

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7. Sudden Memoir (1)

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pp. 79-88

I call the memoir that examines a most recent life phase sudden memoir. A memoir of a recent event avoids the hindsight of age and captures something before memory can edit it. Sudden memoir is as daring as it is histrionic: listen, this just happened to me; you’ve got to hear about it as much as I’ve got to tell it to you...

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8. Sudden Memoir (2)

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pp. 89-99

Though the sudden memoir is still a fledgling, the best one I know of, a thematic kin to The Mother Knot, is Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000). Eggers’s memoir is about the coterminous deaths of his parents and the abrupt change the author faces in his tidy life because he now must raise his...

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9. What Is Telling the Truth?

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pp. 100-112

I wish I had taken a friend’s warning about memoir and family; it’s engraved in my mind (now) like an eleventh commandment: “It’s more important to whom you don’t show your work than to whom you do.” My mother was one of those “don’t show”’s. I mailed her a long story about an incident in our family’s early...

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10. Which Life Am I Supposed to Live?

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pp. 113-125

By now I hope it’s clear that the memoirist is she who sticks with the form long enough to undergo changes in how she sees the past. The act of memoir writing and its river of recollections has made her different from the person she would have been had she not traversed the rapids. The act has also changed and...

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11. Memoir and the Inauthentic

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pp. 126-136

Willa Cather’s nugget bears repeating: “A creative writer can do his best only with what lies within the range and character of his deepest sympathies.” Her aphorism suggests that because our sympathies as writers are several, so, too, are our narratives. And we can’t do our best if we stray from these sympathetic narratives...

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12. Two Selves Authenticated

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pp. 137-150

Who better to root for among the likeable protagonists of recent memoir than Rick Bragg, the hero of All Over but the Shoutin’ (1997). Bragg is the lovable southerner, the bootstrap poor boy of the 1970s. His tale has two parts: his Alabama childhood, during which he is raised by his unselfish “Momma,” and his...

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13. The Trouble with Narrative

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pp. 151-163

Since memoir is typically written as though it were a cousin to the novel, narrative is the form’s chief stylistic device. We think that by making our stories narratively dramatic, we create emotional heat—the vaunted showing over the discouraged telling—that will catalyze the attention of readers. The nature of narrative...

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14. The World the Self Inherits

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pp. 164-178

Memoir tells of how we relate to a past and how a past relates to us during the time—the ever-nagging present—in which we write our stories. Along the way, authentic and inauthentic selves interact: a writer tries to find who is the private me that the public me has covered over. Another kind of relationship that compels...

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15. A Memoir Culture

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pp. 179-191

Working to undelude the self, or at least working to become less deluded, is memoir’s payoff, a change that we feel in the teller because of the story’s action. Readers root for some awareness that the journey has altered, perhaps liberated, the writer. When the payoff is revealed—felt in the writing and recognized...

Notes

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pp. 193-198

Memoirs

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pp. 199-206

Works Cited

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pp. 207-211


E-ISBN-13: 9780804040297
Print-ISBN-13: 9780804011013

Page Count: 226
Publication Year: 2011