I’ve been mulling over the memoir lately, as a genre and as a possible personal project. I know, it seems everybody and their brother is writing a memoir these days. Once upon a time, you had to be rich and famous to even consider penning such a volume. But now there are entire shelves in the library and bookstore devoted to memoir, and collections of personal essays. And most of the authors are common, ordinary sorts of people, who felt a need to tell their story.
And, as a reader, I’m usually ready to listen.
I actually love reading memoirs. I love people’s stories, find them absolutely fascinating and humbling and inspiring. It’s probably because I’m a bit nosy – I’m curious about the way people live, everything from their beverage of choice to their deepest, darkest secret. It may also be that I’m a little bit lonely. I have such a tiny family circle, and each member of it is as familiar to me as the palm of my hand. No secrets, no surprises. So it’s kind of fun to get a glimpse inside someone else’s life.
It feels like our desire to share these stories comes from a need to leave some permanent mark on the world. Everything in modern society seems so fleeting and impermanent. We toss things aside so easily – check mark and delete them from our computers and our minds and, ultimately, from our histories. But if we write it down and set it forth into the world, bound and printed and tied up with a bow, then we’ve left a footprint of our selves for others to see and follow, and impression in the sands of time.
“My purpose as a writer is to loot my life to the very walls,” Virginia Woolf wrote. Certainly writers can “loot their lives” in the creation of fiction, can mine their own experiences and feelings in the development of imaginary characters and stories. It takes a unique type of creative genius to use words to mold an entirely new reality, using the very fibre of their being for inspiration. I love reading these stories too, becoming caught up in a world created from scratch.
But sometimes the real world is almost better than fiction. Sitting down with a well written memoir is like reading a personal letter. Filled with shared confidences and experiences, it’s a gift from the writer to the reader. It’s like holding a slice of someone’s life in your hand.
And that’s a mighty powerful gift indeed.