Post by Theo Pauline Nestor
I like to think of memoir as a genre in its adolescence. Before the publication of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996) and Katherine Harrison’s The Kiss (1997), the memoir barely existed as a possibility. Following this logic, the contemporary memoir turns eighteen this year. Maybe the memoir hangs out with friends doing bong hits on the weekends and has a part-time job at Safeway.
Other than a few notable exceptions (This Boys’ Life in 1989, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, for example), pre-1990s writers with the desire to write narrative nonfiction wrote autobiographical novels, sometimes so autobiographical that they read much like memoir (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, to name a few). But yet, there weren’t memoirs; they weren’t labeled memoir, they weren’t read as memoirs and they weren’t written as memoirs. They were written as novels, with the limitations and possibilities of novels.
The possibilities for a novel (a form that announces itself as fiction) and the possibilities for memoir (a form that announces itself as nonfiction) are not the same, and while memoirists can learn a great deal from fiction, there is much we can only learn from each other. Fiction readers want to be transported by a made up tale that reads like real life; our readers want authentic experience forged by imagination into a compelling story. The novel has a tradition as a popular form a few hundred years long; the paint has barely dried on the sign labeled “Memoir” in your local bookstore.
Like adolescents, no one can tell us what to do. If we want to steal from purse of poetry or journalism, we will. Like adolescents, we need to question the rules we’ve been handed. As a genre, our future is still unwritten.
Fifteen years ago, I knew I wanted to be A Writer, and I knew I would never do the writing I needed to do without being enrolled in an MFA program. In 1997 the choice boiled down essentially to fiction or poetry. I didn’t write poetry so by elimination my choice was made, but my true interest was in narrative nonfiction. I was in love with the possibilities of first person nonfiction.
Since that time I’ve written two memoirs (three, if you count one that never found a publisher—and why not?) and have been—for the last seven years—teaching memoir writing for the University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education program. Teaching memoir writing has become a central passion in my life. I’m inspired by my students’ stories and their successes. My students have gone onto publish their own memoirs and to find their way into magazines and websites such as Salon, the New York Times, and the Yoga Journal.
Organizing Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat has been a wonderful extension of my vision as a writer and teacher of memoir. I’m excited for the possibilities of the retreat, for the time together to discuss the possibilities of the still-young memoir form, and for the chance to be teaching in a community that includes the smarts and talent of Cheryl Strayed, Suzanne Finnamore, Ariel Gore, Candace Walsh, EJ Levy, and all of you.
See you there!
Theo’s Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat Classes:
1. It’s Not JUST About You: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” and other things memoir might say
In this class we will discuss and experiment with ways that the memoir can use the individual experience to tell a larger story that lends insight into our culture, our times, and the universal experience. We will examine how essayists and poets often use their authority as writers to tell us about the world we live in, as Allen Ginsberg does in the opening line of “Howl” and Joan Didion does throughout The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem. We will also discuss how Joseph Campbell’s theory of the 17-step monomyth can help you to find the hero’s journey within your own story. But as heady as all this sounds, this class will be action-oriented and hands-on. Get ready to find the bigger story in your memoir.
2.Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts: The Multiple-Narrative Memoir
Is your memoir not one story but two? Are you a bit daunted by the idea of writing a memoir with multiple narratives? Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, David Shields’ The Thing About Life is One Day You’ll Be Dead, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Claire Dederer’s Poser and Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge are just a few examples of memoirs that twine together more than one storyline very effectively. In this hands-on class we will discuss techniques for weaving together multiple narratives and the benefits and drawbacks of doing so.