Prompted by the fact that the UBC has recently chosen a few memoirs to read, and I have read many on my own, I got to thinking about what makes a good memoir and why some people love them and some people hate them.
I am part of the first group – I love them. I find there is something compelling and spellbinding about reading a story that I know to be (mostly) true and learning about lives and difficulties to which I may not otherwise be exposed. But what makes a memoir good? I certainly am no expert, but I have read quite a few (partial list below):
- Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre (UBC pick – review here)
- Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson (UBC pick – review here)
- Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat (UBC pick – review here)
- The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (UBC pick – review here)
- Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
- Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth
- A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
- Shake Hands with the Devil by General Romeo Dallaire
For me the key factors for whether I enjoy a memoir are the same as for fiction – the writing style and editing play a big role; and of course the story, people and events must be interesting. I think to write a good memoir you have to have gone through something exceptional, either good or bad. There also needs to be a why? Why is this person included? Why is this event important to the overall story? Why did the author choose to do something? I also prefer memoirs I can relate to in some way – either to the events or the author’s decisions.
I don’t think minor changes, such as changing names, people or details slightly to protect identities or leaving unimportant details or people out, harm the telling of the story. However, I think that often because of these slight changes people tend to accuse authors of exaggerating or lying. I often read reviews where people question the accuracy of memoir and I think that this is quite unfair. These stories are often written as a form of healing or to share an experience with others who may have gone through something similar. I don’t believe the authors have anything to gain from lying, since they know the book will be subject to scrutiny (case and point – A Million Little Pieces by James Frey – no one wants to go through that). I don’t think that changing some details for the sake of privacy is deceitful or should be subject to criticism. The characters are real, and as they may not have given their permission to be included in a public novel, I actually think it is only fair to protect them.
Below are a few of my favorite memoirs:
This is the story of the loss of a mother, a divorce, some bad decisions, and an 1,100 mile hike. There was something about this memoir that drew me in and kept me there until the end. For me this was a truely unputdownable book. I loved reading about Strayed’s hike and the people she met a long the way and the background sections were tied in smoothly to the story. I felt invested, partly i think, because I understand the pain of losing a parent and the way that this affects decisions for years to come – in my case the 1100 mile hike was a 3-month stay volunteering in Costa Rica.
A Long Way Gone details Beah’s experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone and his ultimate rehabilitation. Although this was not a story that I related to – I have no idea what that must be like – Beah wrote with such honesty that i could not put it down despite the horrifying content. To get a glimpse into the world of a child soldier and the efforts to help them connected me to this cause and it is one that is important to me still, years after i read the book.
I also loved The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, whcih i detailed in My Favorite Books of 2012 post.
Good or bad, whether you enjoy a particular book or not, I believe memoirs can give readers insight into situations they may not otherwise have an understanding of and can provide an important contribution to a variety of social causes (domestic abuse, child soldiers, etc.).