Review: ‘Memoir and the Memoirist’

The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson. Swallow Press. 211 pp. $11.53

As one who loves narrative (reading two essay collections in a row without discernable narrative makes me crazy for story) I found Larson’s chapter “The Trouble with Narrative” fascinating and instructive. Larson casts a gimlet eye on the “crutch” of narrative for memoirists; for one thing, strict adherence to narrative can lead authors into playing with timeline and outright embellishing for dramatic effect. His main complaint is that emphasizing story almost inevitably reduces self-disclosure, which he believes is memoir’s reason for being.

Many readers, and writers, seem to assume at least parts of all memoirs are fabricated. This isn’t true, and Larson argues that memoir’s typology isn’t yet fixed. But narrative inclines writers to fudge in order to foreshadow and for dramatic effect: when, really, did you know that crucial thing? When does clinging to literal truth become just nasty neat and misleading? What do you do when you discover that your memory itself is fictional or contains fictional elements? The mind makes sense of things at a deeper level than mere timeline—so is it the timeline that’s honest and true or is truth the emotional sense your mind has made of it?

I think Larson would say that honest memoirs explore that gray area. In other words, our shifting perspective is what’s true and interesting: “there is no as it was; there is only our perspective now, interlocking with the past.” So he argues for subverting narrative expectations, for departing from fiction’s narrative presentation of character and moving closer to a reflective presentation of self. In other words, memoir is developing its own literary form, and its purpose may be the larger, neglected arena of adult growth as a means of sustaining culture.

“Some argue that to write memoir or to seek individuation (a la Jung’s practice) is a purely selfish enterprise,” Larson writes. “Hardly. Personal fulfillment and the longevity of life are evolutionary imperatives. If you look at any index of human development . . . you find that social and personal betterment are mutually dependent. It may be that the desire for individual fulfillment is what predominately drives a society to evolve.”

Larson’s discussion of writers, especially his astute discussion of Virginia Woolf, illuminates where the memoir came from, where it is now, and where it may be going. He does more to explain memoir as a new genre than anything I’ve seen.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, fiction, honesty, memoir, narrative, REVIEW

6 responses to “Review: ‘Memoir and the Memoirist’

  1. John V. Wylie

    Are not the genres of memoir and creative or narrative nonfiction attempts to adhere to the reality of the “subjective data” of personal experience in the same way that the the scientist attempts to adhere to the objective empirical evidence?

  2. Well put, John. Emotional truth and subjective experience are key. What I’d add, however, is that conscious and outright fabrication of character, dialogue, scene, and details breaks a contract with the reader–unless the writer lets the reader know what he’s up to. My problem with playing with objective reality without great care is that it can be grossly unfair to real people, and I think it’s unnecessary.

  3. I think the essence of narrative writing is creating a verbal photograph of a given situation, capturing the associated flavor and emotion, and allowing the world to see and feel the situation through your words. It is an experiement in noticing what we notice and why, and trying to convey that information as simply and elegantly as possible.

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