People have always treasured the value of the human story, reading another person’s individual journey and relating it to their own. We often project ourselves into fictional journeys like Harry Potter, connecting to the characters just as we would our friends. But there is also something very distinct about memoir, the real life story, that we appreciate now even more so than before.
As I work my way up my lower twenties, I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with nonfiction and memoir and less with fiction. I find myself picking up books like I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Yes Please by Amy Poehler rather than the latest bestselling fiction book. I realize of course that my tastes mature and adapt as I get older. I crave the true story narrative, I want to better know these women who have inspired me, and let them inspire me more. But I don’t think it’s just me. I think we in today’s culture demand more true stories, more reflective memoir on real events, and it’s changing how memoir is written and displayed.
To back up a bit, I’d like to start by saying that I personally became interested in creative nonfiction my junior year of college, when I took a course in memoir. We alternated reading memoirs with writing our own. I gained inspiration and guidance through the words of masters like Stephen King and did writing exercises that brought me back to my first memory, my first heartbreak, and my first true experience with complex emotion. I learned to appreciate that while at twenty I was not sitting on a hotbed of “cool experiences,” I had just a valid story to tell as anyone else, and nobody had my memories but me. Everyone has a story to tell that is only theirs, because only they experienced it exactly in that way. I learned to distance myself from my memories in order to properly reflect on them, and I could create something truly introspective.
It was a sincerely meaningful course to me, and I believe to others, but it was also funny, as we delved into realms of group therapy in our small workshops. That semester was the season for “bad boyfriend” stories, stories of heartbreak and love lost. Some people talked about family, and their personal hardships and struggles. It was different than any other writing course I’d had before, because for once, we knew the stories were true, we knew this had happened to our classmates, and we wanted the details. We wrote about the things in our lives that made us tick, realizing too late that each of us would have to fidget our way through our workshop, not being allowed to speak while our classmates talked about the credibility of our real-life characters and the believability of our personal reactions to the situations only one of us had really experienced.
And that is just it. Memoir is a story from one singular person (unless in the rare occasion the book or story is co-written); it is their scope of events and experiences us as readers may or may not be previously familiar with. Once you write your story and bring it to your readers, it becomes theirs too, and there’s not much you can really do about it. However, that really is the point after all, isn’t it? Memoir is not just a recording of past events, as it once was in the days of famous diaries and personal journals.
Memoir is about forming a connection with the reader, relating to the emotions you thought only you felt, the experiences you thought only you had. We do this sometimes with fiction, but it’s different this time because the person is real, and you know they are literally out there somewhere and this 250 page piece of them has become a friend to you.
I feel this when I read books like Yes Please. Amy Poehler doesn’t glamorize anything that’s happened in her life, from the birth of her children, to her years on SNL, to the sad reality of divorce, and to the true difficulty of sitting and writing it all down. She is certainly selective in her description of events, staying away from talking in too much detail about her divorce because that is a sad and complicated part of her life (and frankly because it’s nobody else’s business), but that doesn’t stop her from talking about how it makes her feel, and that’s what we relate to anyway. Her book shows that memoir is a series of lessons; ones that readers then understand and pass on to others. For example, she talks about struggling with her looks, finally accepting them as they are, and instead finding and utilizing her own currency: her humor. This is one part I took to heart as a reader, finding that focusing on my own strengths, my own currency, changes the way I approach each day and the rest of my life.
A book like I Am Malala does something different, with a tone less of humor (though the book is not without it) and more of personal strength, endurance, and motivation. Malala tells her story in a very accessible way. We may not ever know what it’s like to live under the fear and violence of the Taliban, but we (most likely) know what it’s like to have a family, and worry about what might happen to them. However, Malala’s narrative shows what we take for granted: our access to education, our personal freedoms, and our safety. Why her story sticks with us as readers today is not because she was shot in the head by the Taliban, but because she persistently gets back out there and fights, because she will not be silenced. We need this memoir today because it checks our privilege and inspires us to do more because of the resources and opportunities we are given.
I Am Malala and Yes Please are numbers two and three on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, proving that these narratives, while vastly different, are what people want to read today. While both Amy Poehler and Malala Yousafzai were both famous before their books, their books are still compelling and well-written despite this fact. I think people want to read about real people today because in some ways our interests are drifting from the happily ever after fiction narrative. Maybe our real life heroes and heroines are living happily ever after, but at least it’s real.
We aren’t trying to escape reality anymore, we are trying to confront it, allowing real successful people to inspire and teach us.
Memoir as art has changed in meaning for me personally, giving me an outlet for exploring the events of my life and getting a second chance at making sense of them. For people in general, memoir has adapted to forming a personal connection with someone inspiring, relating to another’s experiences and learning something we can apply to our own lives. Memoir shows us that sometimes the most interesting stories are the real ones. They ground us in a place and time, help us come to terms with our own reality, and show us how we can make our reality better simply by further understanding it.