The Power of a Personal Tale


CALL it the Year of the Memoir - a season of self-disclosure, a celebration of the first-person-singular, a time when readers and writers are turning what Walt Whitman called a "song of myself" into a hot literary genre.

This spring, publishers' lists feature a record number of memoirs - at least 40 by one industry count. Add other first-person voices - autobiographies, diaries, letters - and the number nearly quadruples.

At the same time, colleges are reporting burgeoning interest in courses on reading and writing memoirs. And adult-education classes on the subject are attracting neophyte writers eager to record their own experiences.

"A good memoir tells a story in a very compelling way," says Janet Silver, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, whose list includes six memoirs. "People are hungry for good stories. That can be irrestistible."

Literary professionals also offer other explanations for the popularity of these intensely personal narratives, whose subjects range from celebrity confessionals to political memoirs, from tear-stained accounts of family tragedies to lyrical evocations of self-discovery. Some see the interest, in part, as an outgrowth of tell-all talk shows. Others point to an impersonalization of society that creates a yearning for connection and humanity.

"There's an intimacy about memoirs," says Susan Petersen, executive vice president of the Putnam Publishing Group. "In the world today, people are feeling isolated. Even though we can communicate very speedily by e-mail, that doesn't carry with it a feeling that the human being is with you. The need to make contact with people is growing at the same time that it's actually getting harder to do."

Caroline Mohyde, a literary agent with the Doe Coover Agency in Medford, Mass., says, "It almost reassures us to read about people's lives that are worse than our own. If you think your own life is troubled, it puts it in perspective. If you think your own life is boring, it's a way to live vicariously without getting yourself in trouble."

An American genre

Jonathan Middlebrook, a professor of English at San Francisco State University, sees the memoir as a particularly American genre.

"The habit of self-scrutiny to find out if one is saved or damned was the start of Yankee writing," Professor Middlebrook says. Referring to Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, he explains, "They developed the habit of noticing with very great precision the states of their souls. In the case of Edwards, it goes both ways. He's always looking inward to himself, but very quickly he looks outward, examining the world for signs of God's favor. These days we're less inclined to say God, but the intensity of the writing is the same."

Today, Middlebrook continues, "We somewhat too glibly say that our institutions are all failing us. We become interested in finding out who we are, since there's nothing else to support us. We're at once free and at sea. Language well used helps to give us a sense of who we are."

That search for identity is becoming increasingly diverse, according to Ms. Silver. Through memoirs, she says, the publishing industry "has opened up to all kinds of voices that weren't heard before. Women, minorities, and people from other cultures are being given a hearing."

One of those minority voices this spring belongs to James McBride, author of "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother."

During a recent publicity tour, Mr. McBride observed that the book "seemed to be a catharsis for a lot of readers. Oftentimes the readings would become not so much question-and-answer sessions but almost like counseling sessions, where people stood up and said, 'I had an experience like that too. I know just what your mother felt.'"

While McBride welcomes this literary diversity, he is concerned that some black memoirs "don't reflect a true panorama of the African-American experience." Explaining that his is "not an 'oh-woe-is-me' type of book," he says, "People look at the title of your book and assume that, in the case of race, you're writing about your torn, tragic life, and you were miserable, and everyone hated you because you were a mixed child. That wasn't the case at all."

As students' interest in memoirs increases, many colleges and universities are designing programs in "creative nonfiction," a category that includes memoirs.

"It's growing exponentially," says Roxanne French-Thornhill, programs coordinator for Associated Writing Programs, a group of 291 academic creative-writing programs based at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Her group hopes to formally track the growth in a survey next year. Alexandra Johnson, a lecturer on memoir-writing at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., regularly turns away students from oversubscribed courses. "Every semester the room is just packed," she says. "It's enormously popular."

Depth of characters

Many people, Ms. Johnson finds, "are tired of the minimalist school of fiction, where authors have left out a whole character's background. For them, reading memoirs offers the satisfaction of a novel. But memoir also offers a kind of awakening or moral lesson somewhere in it."

Yet she tells students on the first day that they must "cast a cool eye when they look at memoir, because not everything in memoir is true. Memoir is constantly being shaped by the writer, often at the expense of the reliability of the memory."

For inexperienced writers, Johnson sees memoir-writing as a mixed blessing. "The good impulse is for people to tell their stories. They want to transform their experience, whether it's been painful or joyous. The bad thing is that people think it's a very simple thing to do, when it fact it's a very complex craft."

Calling memoir-writing "a very sophisticated genre," she says, "It's not just transcribing your life. The myth is that you just sit and write memoir because you know your life. But it's one of the hardest things to do well."

That difficulty does not keep some would-be memoirists from trying. Denis Ledoux, an author in Lisbon Falls, Maine, has been conducting memoir-writing classes since 1988 for writers' groups, senior centers, geneological societies, and students. Last year he also held a workshop on a Choctaw Indian reservation in Mississippi.

"It's a great topic, because it interests people of all ages," says Mr. Ledoux. "Older people want to look back and acknowledge what they've done. They have a tremendous need to tell their grandchildren what it was like to have been who they were. People in the middle want to explore patterns in their lives. And young people in high school and middle school want to find out where they're going, what kind of people they'll become."

That kind of grass-roots interest in self-examination and reflection may be one reason publishers remain confident that memoirs will retain long-lasting appeal as a literary genre.

"I think we're at the beginning, actually," Ms. Petersen says. "I look forward to the day when there will be sections in bookstores that say 'Memoir.' I really mean that. I hope for it."

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