why write a memoir?



At the Huffington Post, Rebecca Walker asks herself why she’s compelled to write memoirs instead of more “respectable” fiction.

She says:

After USA Today called that first book “stunningly honest,” people told me how much they loved the book, how it changed their lives, how gorgeous it is and so on. I heard all of that, I really did, but I also heard what they didn’t say. Like, how they would never write a book like mine. They would never describe their first blowjob to the world in thrilling detail, or admit to shoplifting from JC Penney. While they benefit from me doing it and pity the exorbitant price I paid, at the end of the day I don’t think they really respect me for it. And neither do my colleagues and critics.

My thoughts:

To write a memoir is to interrogate your past, to define your reality instead of having others define it for you, and that is a powerful action to take and an admirable example to set.

When you take a personal story and set it within the public realm, you make it part of a shared and much larger experience. Shame is a thing that is personal, secret, isolated, cut off from any real sense of context. A memoir takes that thing and makes it public, known, and part of a bigger perspective.

It’s because so many people can’t fathom telling these kinds of stories — exposing the things that would “shame” them — that memoirs are, I think, so popular. Where else can people find the kind of confirmation a memoir can give: You are not alone, because this happened to me too, and this is the meaning I took from it.

Recent memoirs I’ve read and loved: LOVE JUNKIE by Rachel Resnick and HER LAST DEATH by Susanna Sonnenberg.


Nov 7, 2009

7 comments · Add Yours

I have little use for memoirs like Walker’s. I prefer the more traditional autobiography–usually written by someone of some stature for their achievements or longevity. Gore Vidal’s “Point to Point Navigation” is fantastic. Peter O’Toole’s “Loitering with Intent” is excellent and has the coolest title ever.


Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight – her early life was so horrible that it makes for very compelling reading. Similar to Liars Club, only set in what was then Rhodesia.


Recently read (and TOTALLY worth reading): A Pocket History of Sex in the Twentieth Century, Jane Vandenburgh; The Suicide Index, Joan Wickersham; The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott; Miles From Nowhere, Nami Mun.

Currently reading Mary Karr’s newest, Lit. She’s so f**king spectacular I can hardly stand it.


Memoirs and autobiographies are different, though — autobiographies encompass the entire scope of a life — memoirs look at one given period.

I like both. And biographies. (LOVED the one on Lee Miller that came out not so long ago….Also Savage Beauty, the one on Edna St Vincent Millay).

Rebecca Walker is the daughter of Alice Walker, and the memoir she’s referring to was a frank examination of their less-than-ideal relationship.


I have that! I haven’t read it but I hear it’s great.


I have the Adderall Diaries (haven’t read it) — I’ve heard good things about Lit.


Good clarification. I had not made the correct distinction.


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