Friday, October 24, 2008

Memoir versus Autobiography

Four and a half years ago, when starting out on this venture to write Apeshit, I had to decide on the genre and style I wanted to use. That is, specifically, should it be an autobiography, detailing my entire life, or something more focused, either in chronology, tone or subject? An autobiography is very daunting indeed to think of writing. A huge undertaking! I love a good biography, and have read a few autobiographies that I liked. But most autobiographies, in my opinion, get bogged down with the author trying to be too complete, too detailed. A recent one that struck me so was Bill Clinton's "My Life." Weighing in at a whopping 957 pages, boy, was it ever complete! I like Bill Clinton and admire what he did for our nation, but I could not make it through that tome, mainly for its repetitious style of "recalling people," and I paraphrase, "oh yeah and Billy Bob Johnson and his family lived down the street from us, there in Hope, and they were really good people." Bless his heart, Bill included nearly everyone he ever met and this type of brief description made for a repetitious feel that inevitably made me nod off. Whereas, an example of a gripping, very readable autobiography that jumps to my mind due to the lasting impression it made on me is Carl Gustav Jung's "Memories, Dreams, Reflections." That book is briefer, but very, very deep. I have read it at least 3 times and have recommended it to hundreds of people, for numerous different reasons. But whether recommended therapeutically or not, it just makes for a fascinating read, and was completed near the end of the famous psychoanalyst's life.
So, after mulling it over a few hundred times and trying it both ways, I ultimately decided on the much more manageable (and I believe, more digestible, for the readers) genre of the memoir. Now, think with me please....what was the first memoir that you recall ever reading? Can you remember the author? Something about the book? Its content? If you did recall the book and something in it, what do you feel made it stick with you? Why is it still in the accessible part of your mind's memory? Likely it hit home in some way...touched a common nerve or gave you a new perspective on something vexing or difficult. Or was it something else for you? Please feel free to answer some or any of my questions by clicking on "post comments." I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subjects.
Incidentally for me, the first book I read that was presented to me as a memoir was "Scoundrel Time," by Lillian Hellman. She, as you may know, was a famous playwright and writer, but wrote a few excellent memoirs about parts of her life. "Scoundrel Time" dealt with the era of the "Red Scare" and Hollywood's blacklisting of many writers who were Socialist, Communist, or were suspected of being sympathizers by those with much narrower minds, or even rumored somehow to be associating with those Commie devils. Hellman's lover, Dashiell Hammett, was one of writers who was persecuted under the paranoid period of Senator McCarthy's blacklisting. A dark chapter indeed in American history, recently revisited by Bush, Cheney, and company. But hey, looking on the bright side, that's almost over folks!
Thus, I decided to do a memoir because it is more controllable. One can choose to write about, say, one year of one's life. People who keep diaries have great material for later writing a memoir. I have not, per se, been a faithful diary-keeper, rather I record thoughts, feelings, notions, ideas and such in journals, whenever the muse visits me. I do always date each entry for reference later. I often classify the writing if it is clearly for one memoir or another (I have started another besides Apeshit) or for a short story or other fiction. So, in Apeshit, some years are completely left times for some reason--other times the reason may be that I cannot remember anything significant from that year. Also, I have queried family and friends about certain events and times that I was fuzzy or vague on, but still present only my take on the subject. Indeed that is what makes a memoir a memoir. It is one person's reality as best as it can be put into words. It may contrast with, even be the complete opposite from the way another person, who was present at the same event, recalls. So, know that Apeshit is my memoir, no one else's.

Like in my introductory post, I'll close with another Kurt Vonnegut quote, "if you can do a half-assed job of anything, you're a one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind."


Cassandra Rae said...

Oh I'm so inspired to read Jung's memoir now! I like your take on the memoir versus autobiography issue. Whatever we publish as writers must have substance, whether it's 90 or 900 pages. Most recently I read Martha Beck's memoirs Expecting Adam and Leaving the Saints. I liked how each one chronicled a specific time in her life and read more like a novel. At the very least, they were excellent stories with lots of juicy advice to take away as well.

Andre S. Lange said...

Thanks Cassandra,and I hope you do read Jung's memoir--it's amazing, inspiring, reads well and is much more than one might guess to find in a psychiatrist's memoir. Thank you too for answering the question about recently read memoirs and why they appealed or not. I will (when I finish the six books I am currently reading) add Martha Beck's memoirs to my "to be read list." I echo what you said, and paraphrase it it a bit, that is, with memoirs one wants them to "be at least easily-read (flowing) stories with good, verified true-life advice, as in lessons learned, pains lessened or strategies improved." Thus, hopefully others can learn from the writer's mistakes, and benefit from his/her unique victories.