The self-indulgent, ageist memoir

I am of the opinion that everyone has a story to tell – that doesn’t mean everyone should tell it, though.

When I teach memoir to students in my writing class, we talk a lot about the ‘why’: Why is this the story you are telling? What have you taken away from this experience? If you want to take a reader on the journey through your life, there has to be a pretty compelling reason.

Some memoirs are more successful than others. In order for a memoir to work – for me at least – it has to combine three elements: story, character and writing.

I read the above passage in a Goodreads review for Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Maybe this practice is hypocritical, as an author myself, but I prefer reading negative reviews to positive ones. Maybe because the positive reviews are already splashed on the front cover, and are the reason I picked up the book in the first place. Negative reviews – the ones that are nuanced and well-written, not the trolling THIS BOOK SUCKS DON’T EVER READ IT kind – intrigue me because often it’s the aspects of a book I liked most that turned off other readers. Human subjectivity is fascinating.

In the case of Wild, many negative reviews loved the idea of Strayed’s story, but not the execution. And regardless of which memoir it is, there is always a review that is going to accuse the author of being “self-centered”: “There’s too much navel-gazing and not enough story.” “I wanted to learn more about the Pacific Crest Trail than the author’s troubled past.”

If that’s the case, I have to wonder…why did you choose to pick up a book from a genre that is, by definition, “self-centered”? Memoirs are about the self!

I wrote my first memoir at 22 (and re-worked and re-published it at 25): an age that, by many people’s standards, is far too young for this genre. One thing I respect about the review above is the emphasis on story in a memoir: it shouldn’t read like a book report if you want it to be good. The problem for many twenty-somethings is not having lived enough story to fill up pages and captivate readers. But that raises the question of how story is defined: are we talking life experience? Anecdotes of wisdom? Lessons learned? The twenties are a perfect time period for those things.

Granted, I’ve read other memoirs by twenty-somethings that came off as whiny. I attribute this to the writing style and not the story being told. Anybody can whine, but not everyone can write. To dismiss a person’s story because they haven’t “lived enough” is a subjective criticism at best, and flat-out ageist at worst.

confessionscoverIn my case, I wrote Confessions because I had only read one other life story that resembled my own. I wrote the book I wished I could have read eight years ago. Readers have asked me since if I have considered another one, and my answer is yes…but if I do write one, it likely won’t see the light of day for another ten to fifteen years. This is because my life right now has more questions than solid answers, and I know this would not make for good reading (at least not a book I would want to read). This is reflective on my age somewhat, but I could just as easily experience life-altering questions of faith at 36 as I do at 26. My hope in waiting is that, by age 36, or 42, or 50, I’ll hopefully have more solid conclusions than I do now, thus making a better, well-rounded book.

And what’s more, sometimes it’s fascinating to read two memoirs by the same author that are completely different in belief and conviction. That’s more representative of real life than anything else.

Do you think memoirs are self-indulgent, and how much life should you have lived before writing one?

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7 thoughts on “The self-indulgent, ageist memoir

  1. Natacha Guyot says:

    I don’t read many memoirs but I think that as long as there is character growth, I don’t believe that the author should be of a certain age to write one. I believe we learn during our whole life and why couldn’t we write several memoir types of books? Memoirs can also be strongly related to an aspect of one’s life which doesn’t necessarily require them to be of this or that age. I have a project akin to a memoir, that ties with experiences I got these past few years and how one of my pasttimes eventually helped me discover a lot about myself. I don’t know when/whether I write it, but it has been on my mind. 🙂

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      I’ve read plenty of memoirs where authors seem to beef up their scandalous life choices just so they can make a buck. You can tell who does it for money (sometimes) when there’s little to no character growth by the end of the book. Just my not-so-humble opinion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kayjayfaletra says:

    I love what you mentioned about people saying a memoir is self-centered or whatever. I always laugh when people say that about auto-biographies or memoirs because embedded in the genre is the assertion of the author that he/she has something worth saying, a story worth telling. That is a form–a healthy form–of acute self-awareness and self-centeredness (which we all need, author or no).

    I’ve always adored the memoir because it takes the minute, small moments of life and invigorates them with meaning. I mean, they already hold that meaning, but we so rarely acknowledge it, and memoir reminds us that small, feeble moments mean just as much as grand, strong moments. And I have always loved searching and following the winding roads that memoirs lead you through.

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    • Beth Caplin says:

      I always say that people who love to read have better empathy than non-readers, but memoirs are unique in that they give you inside looks at the lives of people you might ever meet, but are part of a widely misunderstood population.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Heather Huffman says:

    As a rule, memoirs aren’t my favorite genre. I can’t say why, really, they just don’t capture my interest the way others do. That’s odd, because people fascinate me. One would think I’d love memoirs. It’s possibly the writing style or format. Sometimes they seem to lack direction or purpose.

    For me, age isn’t so much a determining factor. Some people go through pretty intense things fairly young. In the case of Confessions, I was interested in it because you had a unique point of view that I found intriguing. You have an innate ability to tell a story that came through in the memoir, making it rise above many in the genre.

    Maybe the lack of purpose is why I don’t write a memoir – I can’t even get through a phone call without rambling. I don’t have the talent to weave it all back together the way you did. I do much better to sprinkle bits and pieces of my own story throughout my fiction!

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