Two semesters ago I took a class called Contemporary Memoir. It was an interesting yet puzzling class in which we read a variety of different memoirs “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by Nick Flynn, “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedairs, “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” Dave Eggers, and a few others. All of the memoirs I read had a distinct style, message, prose and significance. The course description read as follows:
ENG 271 – A consideration of contemporary autobiographical writing with a focus on memoir. The course will explore the following questions among others: Why do people have such a powerful urge to tell their life stories? Why read the life stories of others? Why do readers, especially today’s readers, crave truth? To what extent do writers blur the line between “truth” and fiction? To address these questions, we’ll read memoirs and autobiographical fiction, and listen to oral storytelling. Students will write critical essays and a brief memoir piece as a final project.
This class sought to answer some of the most vague questions, “Why do people crave the truth?” “Why do people want to tell their life story?” and “To what extent do writers blur the line between “turth” and fiction? What I loved most about this class is that these questions COULD NOT be answered with a definite or correct answer; it was up to the reader to make judgment on what they had read.
After reading all of these memoirs (autobiographical memoirs) the class discussions always came back to one question “Is the writer telling the truth?” But, why is that such an issue, especially in writing. The authors of all these memoirs wrote a story that impacted an individual in some way, shape, or form. Should we question whether or not its true? Tim O’ Brien’s “The Things They Carried” does an excellent job of illustrating the art of storytelling through memoir; creating and recreating lives and keeping the memories of others alive and vivid to readers. A memoir is MEMORY, how you remember a specific event or time in your life.
I think the most difficult task throughout the class was identifying WHAT IS MEMOIR? There was such a range in the types of memoirs read that by the end of the class, just about anything can be a memoir depending on how you interpret it. There is lack of appreciation in the genre of memoir (creative writing) readers, journalists, critics, etc. get caught up in determining whether or not it is true and completely over look the art in the writing. Yes, read between the lines, figure out how author organizes his story, make literary connections, and take it as the author presents it. The author didn’t write it for you to say “Yup, that’s true” or “STOP lying” or “Are you sure that’s what you meant?” Appreciate the writing, its an ART!! If I would have spent my time figuring out if Nick Flynn or David Sedaris were conveying the truth I would have never finished their memoir. How these authors conveyed their memories was what was most important to me. I could evaluate these memories, find moments of sentimentality, and emotion. Most importantly, I was enjoying the writing.
Read a memoir!! I suggest Nick Flynn’s “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” Absolutely moving and touching!!!