Reading Memoirs: There is no one good way to write a memoir

I’m curious about memoirs and have started to gather them at home. This gathering is a process I enjoy tremendously and involves hours spent with my head tilted to the side scanning thrift shop bookshelves. It’s my version of hunting and gathering. Usually non-violent and I never know what I’ll come home with.

Recently, I read three memoirs in a row and each hit completely differently, which is probably the charm of a memoir. Memoirs aren’t just about the life of the person writing them but also the way they look at and describe that life. Life on the margins is hard to write about because the authors are often writing about experiences that most of their readers cannot understand and context most of their readers will never experience. 

In his best-selling memoir, Born a Crime, Trevor Noah reveals himself to be not just exceedingly smart and perceptive, but a most loyal kind of son. His story is an ode to his mother and everything she put into raising him. The hint is in the title because after all it is his mother who, along with his father, committed the crime that led to his birth by creating a child between races, of both and part of neither. This is the paradox of Noah’s young life. In a country with extensive categories for races and mixing of races no less complex than the Indonesian systems described by Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities, Noah doesn’t fit into any of the boxes provided for him.

Apartheid in South Africa officially ended on 4 May 1990. Many of Trevor Noah’s readers may have been born after apartheid. This book is both a primer on apartheid for those readers and a personal account of the complications apartheid brought about for Noah in his life. It’s also the story of a young man whose brain got him in trouble, who was too smart to just accept the rules because he could find loopholes in the logic. I love that kind of dissent. Many rules are arbitrary, put in place to control groups of people. People who are afraid of losing control use rules and the sense behind them doesn’t matter, only the result. Noah puts his finger on this pain point for society, but also for schools and parents and communities. I thoroughly enjoyed his story and writing.

Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors was surprise after surprise for me. It’s a book that’s been on my radar for a long time because someone somewhere wrote that it was their favorite memoir. That’s one of those references lost forever to me, but it’s how I arrived at this title. Augusten is a gay young man who’s mother’s quest for therapy and sanity shapes his life. He isn’t the victim of his mother’s mental illness as much as its product. There is no self-pity in these pages, only a series of events and circumstances that boggle the mind.

The writing here was incredibly immediate in terms of the details. Burroughs describes people and spaces with unsparing detail and it brings them to life. There is some debate about the truth of his account and if you search online, you’ll find the family he describes here sued him for his efforts. But what strikes me is the tension he creates between these events and recollections that are intense in detail but somehow he remains emotionally absent. The feelings he describes are those of his younger self, not of adult Augusten looking back on what happened to him. What happens is that where Trevor Noah writes an ode to his mother, Burroughs writes a somewhat detached description of his. This gives the whole novel a feeling of there, not there, that I found intriguing. It’s definitely worth a read, although in 2021, perhaps a read with trigger warnings.

Nora Ephron was best known to me for her scriptwriting before I read this, with unforgettable movies like When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle to her credit. It feels like she created her own genre of cynical romance movie that those of us who thought we’d fall in love in the 1990s all watched and waited to come true. More than a memoir, I Feel Bad About My Neck is a collection of essays Ephron wrote about turning 60 and a bit. As the only female writer in my little pile, I expected to relate to her, but it didn’t quite hit home for me. Maybe I’m too young for it.

For me, though, the real disconnect was around the way she is concerned with appearances and the work she puts into keeping them up. Her essay “On Maintenance” in particular felt like it was written for an audience I will never belong to, one that is willing to believe in the necessity of manicures and dying their hair. I opted out of both of those in high school and have never regretted it. The anxiety some women have around maintenance in that sense is lost on me. It just doesn’t matter that much to me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed “The Story of My Life in 3,500 Words or Less.” Part of that is the same curiosity that compels me to buy Daily Rituals: Women at Work by Mason Currey. Those of us who dream of being published always wonder how those women who have made it happen actually got that far. No surprise, by the way, they usually worked their tails off and wrote a lot, and I mean a LOT. But I’m also a woman who feels in search of or perhaps in need of a mentor. I yearn to hear the stories of women growing through life lessons. What did they believe and when did they un-believe it? What do we learn as we age? Which lessons remain elusive? Those are some of the questions I have and her essay lifted the curtain on some of her answers to those questions and I enjoyed it. 

I wanted to write about these three memoirs because I was struck by how distinct they are, in their style, their structure, and impact. There is no one way to write a memoir and the writing is as telling as the content. Noah’s chapters are prefaces with factual accounts of South African history. Ephron writes essays that dive deep into specific topics and emerge perhaps more confused than they started. She sees complexity where others merely see choices. The fact that these are so distinct makes a good argument for the idea that the world could always use a new memoir. It is guaranteed to be original because you can never write the story of your life the way another person would.

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