I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a memoir. Not the story of my life. Nothing is so extraordinary in my existence that it merits a book. But a booklet about my four years abroad might be of interest to others. I left for Europe in the early 1960s and returned nearly four years later, having wandered beyond the west into much of central and eastern Africa — a time when that part of the continent was morphing from colony status into independent nations, their freedom achieved by violent means on occasion.
What holds me back is that I know nothing about writing a memoir. My novel, Heart Land is promoted as a fictional memoir, but it’s chock full of made up adventures meant to put a boy of eleven through the rigors of growing up. Unfortunately, life doesn’t come in bundled chapters that are organized around a theme, so I’m uncertain about the skills needed to succeed in writing a personal reflection. I could take a course, I suppose. Most of the offerings I’ve seen, however, are about writing a family history and not aimed for the commercial market where I’m headed. My goal might be lofty, but I’d like to write a memoir akin to Mark Twain’s, Innocents Abroad or John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie.
Mary Karr, author of The Liar’s Club, has published a book on the subject entitled, appropriately, The Art of Memoir. According to one critic, Karr’s piece comes as close to presenting a unified theory of how the genre works as anyone ever did. (The Week, October 2, 2015, pg. 21.) One of her strictures is to be brutally honest. “Only the greatest truth-seeker can write a universal story.” (Ibid pg. 21)
If her stricture about truth isn’t daunting enough, one of her reviewers offers another. Karr succeeds as a writer of memoirs, he writes, because she makes readers feel “honored to live inside her skin for as long as she allows it.” (Ibid, pg. 21.) Few achieve that height, I suspect. As much as I enjoyed Travels with Charlie, I never wanted to be Steinbeck.
When I think about the difference between memoir and fiction, I see little. Memoirs purport to be true; but fiction must have truth to touch a reader. Memoirs instruct and entertain. So does fiction. To be honest, the line between memoir and fiction seems to be narrow enough to render it invisible.
Perhaps I should be asking another question. Do I have anything to say?
(Originally posted 11/17/15)