During our January 2017 memoir workshops we discussed why memoirs have to tell the truth, and how this affects a writer’s organization, subject, and theme. We spent a fair amount of time beating up Strout’s My Name is Lucy. Unlike her earlier Olive Kitteridge, this one reads partly like a memoir, partly like a novel. I thought she never did find her real subject, hence theme–or even genre. The readers on Goodreads also had problems with ambiguity, clarity, and purpose, although many did identify with the mother-daughter relationship. Well, I’m a man, so didn’t.
Anyway, we talked about the six or seven quite distinct types of memoir, all sharing the commonality of being strictly personal (in first person or, like Karr’s Cherry, in second person which is really first), and also being one fairly short slice of life, and most important, going somewhere, not just being self-indulgent or leaving self-pity unresolved (e.g,, Alice Sebold’s Lucky). We particularly liked Wave, about the tsunami that took away all of Sonali Doraniyagala’s family and is so powerfully written–and concluded. I tried to explain why Hillbilly Elegy is so popular now, even though it’s so poorly written I’m surprised anyone published it.
After the workshops a friend admitted she didn’t really like memoirs, and I can understand. Unless they’re spectacularly written, as with Glass Castle, they don’t fully satisfy…but then how many novels do, either?