People have strong thoughts and feelings about memoir, and how old you need to be to write it. In the final instalment in this monthly interview series, Bri Lee reflects on what she’s learnt from talking to memoir writers at different stages of life, discussing their experiences with the craft and with publishing in the controversial genre.
I’ve spent 2017 living memoir. I’m writing my own (it’s in the second phase of editing, a tentative publishing date of June 2018) and have interviewed five incredible Australian memoirists for this series, transcribing and editing hours upon hours of conversation. I’ve spoken on panels about memoir, read over twenty of them (old and new) and had countless more unrecorded, audience-free chats about the form.
This final piece in the series is supposed to be a ‘wrap-up’, a brief summary of things I have discovered. But the more I learn about the craft of memoir, the further I drift away from uncovering any truths. Life writing, like life itself, might defy or transcend classification.
But this is the internet, so here are my top four takeaways.
1. Many memoir writers (regardless of age) don’t really set out to write memoir – it’s often more intuitive and glacial.
A couple of days ago I was on a panel with Lech Blaine at the Queensland Young Writers Conference, and between us we came to the realisation that ‘memoir’ was just a word. Neither Blaine nor I had set out to write memoirs. Blaine rather endearingly says he just thought his book was ‘a novel with me as the main character’ and that the word ‘memoir’ wasn’t used until other people got involved. I similarly had the term thrust upon me, and have since come to accept it.
When I spoke to Anita Heiss, she said she didn’t think she was writing a memoir when she started Am I Black Enough for You? either; Richard Fidler said ‘I think it was something I was feeling my way towards, to be honest, there wasn’t much architecture to it,’; and Patti Miller didn’t know ‘at all’ that her time in Paris ten years ago would form the basis of a memoir.
2. ‘Memoir’ is often just a stamp from a marketing department.
All of this reminded me of something Fiona Wright had told me along the same lines:
…it’s only after the fact that I’ve been referring to Small Acts as memoir, because I always called it a book of essays. To me that was because I didn’t think it was memoir. My publisher, when he sent me the material that was going to go out to the bookshops, had me listed as ‘memoir’ and I said ‘oh, I don’t think it’s memoir, I call it essays’ and he just said: ‘yeah, but where would they put it in the bookshop?’
Small Acts of Disappearance was part memoir, part literary criticism, mostly in essay format. Fidler’s Ghost Empire is part Byzantine history, part memoir; Miller’s Ransacking Paris is kind of a travel-cum-literary hybrid. At the end of the day, the marketing department and bookstores just need to know where to shelve it.
3. Not that many people are actually discrediting young memoirists.
When I asked writers about Mary Karr’s assertion that people shouldn’t write memoir until they’re 35, four of the five I spoke to argued that young people can, and should, write memoir. Anita Heiss summarised the overall feeling best:
…before this I would have thought, ‘ugh, who could write a memoir at 20 or 30?’ but when you understand that a memoir is about a particular part of your life, then of course you could be 20. You could be Malala! You could be 18 and have had something extraordinary happen that is worth documenting. So I guess I’ve shifted my view of the age thing, because it’s about the story. Which is no different to any other piece of writing – fiction or non-fiction. At the end of the day it’s about what the story is, who’s going to read it, and what’s your purpose in telling it?
Miller said she’s been ‘defending the rights of twenty-year-olds to write their memoirs long before doing this,’ and Wright said, ‘The idea that you can be too young for memoir is dismissive of young people and their lives and experiences and stories.’
Perhaps I was projecting: I wrote last year about an incident where I was effectively shamed for writing a memoir in my 20s; but as I spoke to other writers, my feeling of needing to undertake this series to justify my own memoirish tendencies began to feel more like thinly-veiled imposter syndrome. I’m young and I’m a woman; the looks and comments I was receiving at writers festivals and from random members of the public were just good old-fashioned prejudice. But nonetheless, it affected how worthwhile I thought my story was. Miller made a comment about people who take her classes that I think drives this point home:
And as you would guess, about 80 per cent of the people who take my classes are women, and they’re very reluctant to claim their own experiences are valid and worthwhile. They worry it’s selfish and won’t be interesting to other people…
This problem is compounded for people of colour, LGBTQI people and people with diverse bodies. Ironically, the memoirs we all need to be reading are the ones that come from people least empowered or encouraged to write about themselves.
4. Like most things in life, age might just be a trade-off.
The only deviation from the pro-young-memoirist theme came from Richard Fidler. ‘There’s a reason we don’t have so many young people as guests on my radio show. They haven’t lived enough, and haven’t had the sheer, kind of, frequent flyer miles in life in order to have insight.’ The compromise he and I came to in the end was that perhaps there was a kind of bravery or originality that mostly came from younger people, and that in art generally – not just memoir writing or writing – that there was a scale. To wait until you’re older and better at the craft of writing? Or to jump first and perhaps catch a special, fleeting thing?
Blaine said, ‘I almost feel like it’d be worse if I waited twenty years to tell it, because it’d be almost too much distance from what I’m actually trying to talk about. I’d rather tell this story now.’ Yet Fidler’s point was that ‘it’s a little harder, if you haven’t had that life experience, to reflect on what you’ve seen and done in a way that is not still trapped in pain or self-aggrandisement.’
The closeness, it seems, is both the benefit and the risk. The frequent flyer miles might make your insights deeper, but will you be less willing to put your heart and soul on the page? With every year of my life that passes, I feel like I have more to protect. Even now, when I read the first draft of my manuscript from two years ago, it strikes me that I wouldn’t reveal quite so much if I had to write it again now. I’m glad I got a draft down when I was more full of that reckless abandon. I’d rather it be rough around the edges and real.