Friday Speak Out!: Why Memoir?

Friday, May 24, 2019
by Deborah Tobola

There’s nothing like falling into a well-written memoir. How thrilling to travel to Kate Simon’s vibrant post-World War I immigrant neighborhood in Bronx Primitive, to Dominika Derry’s enchanted childhood in a Communist-occupied Czech village in The Twelve Little Cakes, to Patricia Lockwood’s hilariously unconventional household in Preistdaddy. Because of the skills of the writers, each of these books transports the reader to a specific time and place, rendering the book’s world completely.

Memoirs like The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr, Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Wild by Cheryl Strayed are among the titles that have legitimized the genre and created an appetite for more memoirs.

Why are readers drawn to memoirs? We are searching for authenticity. In a world heavy with spin, there’s a hunger for the real. We want the truth of the writer’s life, even if it’s hard to bear sometimes.

Memoirs are intimate in the way other writing is not. There’s a deep dialogue between writer and reader. Reading a well-written memoir is like having coffee with a best friend, rather than a new acquaintance. We get to ride shotgun with the writer in her search meaning in her life.

Finally, memoirs help us put our own experience in context. I have a chapter titled “911” in my memoir, Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison. My experience of that day is particular—spending the day in prison after hearing on the radio that morning what sounded like the end of the world. Most readers will remember precisely their experience of that day. In that way, some moments in memoirs serve as touchstones, reminding us that although we are individuals with unique experiences, we are also connected by the joys and sorrows of our shared human experience.

This is the kind of connection that we long for in literature. There are elements of memoir in writers of other genres, such as Lucia Berlin’s gritty and incandescent stories in A Manual for Cleaning Women and Norm Eisen’s The Last Palace, a breathtaking panoramic chronicle of the history of Eastern Europe, with his mother’s escape from the Nazis during World War II woven in to the history of the building.

For the writer, memoir presents challenges that fiction does not. We use the same tools as novelists, short story writers and poets in telling our stories—a compelling plot, complex characters, vivid language and a coherent theme. But we must also give up artistic license in service of the truth. A memoirist’s experiences are filtered through memory, and people remember the same events differently. The best memoirs, I think, resonate with the ring of truth.

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DEBORAH TOBOLA is a poet, playwright and co-author of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards and a Children’s Choice Book Award. Tobola retired from the Department of Corrections at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company created for formerly incarcerated actors, where she serves as artistic director. Tobola returned to prison work three years ago and currently teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony. She lives in Santa Maria, California.
Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Deborah--Memoir is my favorite genre to read. Some of the titles you included in your post are some I cherish. The titles that are unknown to me--I'll check out.

Bravo for the work you do with people who are incarcerated. I believe everyone has a story to tell, and I'm sure the men you work with have quite compelling stories to share...

Margo Dill said...

I also love memoirs--especially funny ones. And it doesn't have to be a famous person--I just find memoirs and personal essays so interesting to read.

Deborah Tobola said...

Hi Sioux! I love memoir too. Please tell me the memoirs you cherish so I can add them to my reading list. Thank you for your kind words about my work in prison. It is my passion. And yes, there are many stories that need to get out there!

Deborah Tobola said...

Margo, I feel the same way about memoirs written by people who aren't celebrities. Having said that, I'm looking forward to reading Kate Mulgrew's Born with Teeth.

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