30 November 2012

Memoir, a Beginning

For some time now I have been interested in the memoir. And I keep wondering what am I seeking when I read them. Memoir and autobiography are often considered synonymous, but I take the latter as the record of an entire life, or at least up to but not including death; and the former as a view of a portion of a life, sizable though the portion might be. I understand that Miley Cyrus at the age of sixteen has penned a memoir, but her young age conflates the two forms. And maybe the distinction is irrelevant.
I am at the moment wondering if autobiographies and memoirs possess themes as do novels and other pieces of imaginative literature. What is a theme? My old copy of Thrall and Hibbard (Thank you, Dr. Wise!) defines theme as “the central or dominating idea in a literary work . . . It is the abstract concept which is made concrete through its representation in person, action and image in the work.”  My immersion in the postmodern and/or post-structural (and, in fact, in a calm perusal of any shelf containing tomes of literary criticism) has led me to know that themes vary with the particular reader and the strategies she has activated in her reading; and with the times in which the reading takes place. The Scarlet Letter certainly demands a different reading today than it did when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century. I know, as well, that a work can produce a variety of themes; and that a theme is what the book is about even when I cannot exactly recall what happened in the work.
Now, my Thrall and Hibbard notes that in non-fiction works theme “may be thought of as the general topic of discussion the subject of the discourse, the thesis.” The latter term refers to a position taken by a writer or speaker and that in the work must be sufficiently proven. 
Autobiographies and memoirs are reputedly non-fiction pieces: they report the biography of the person writing autobiography, and the reader assumes that the events reported are true. In some very obvious instances we discover that this is not the caseA Million Little Pieces comes immediately to mindbut most memoirs are taken as fact. Phillip Roth, in his autobiography, The Facts, has called the whole notion of ‘facts’ into question, but I will save that discussion for another time.
For this time, however, I want to consider that though the obvious theme of all autobiographies and memoirs is the life of the autobiographer or memoirist, in fact, the life of the autobiographer or memoirist is itself organized by a theme. As the story itself expresses the theme in a work of imaginative literature, so might I understand the autobiography and memoir as a piece of imaginative literature that expresses a theme and that might be read using strategies appropriate to the novel. In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?”  Jeanette Winterson writes: “Part fact part fiction is what life is. And it is always a cover story.” If life is part fiction, then to write about life must contain a good part fiction. I know well how and even why to read fiction, but I have begun to wonder why immerse myself in autobiography and memoir unless I read it as a work of imagination and not of absolute fact? And then I activate a whole other set of strategies than I have led to employ when reading non-fiction. In writing the autobiography of a life how does one distinguish between the fact and the fiction of the life told? Leave out the fiction and the facts tell only a partial story; leave out the fact (how is that possible?) and the work is all fiction and no longer seems an autobiography. Isn’t Moby Dick Ishmael’s memoir? 


Anonymous Barbara said...

In my opinion, I would think it difficult to write either an autobiography or memoir with complete facts since one is engaged in the writing AFTER the events have taken place and one is a different person at that time. I would think the writing would then be altered by the current state of the writer and how he/she remembers the events.

30 November, 2012 11:40  

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