Memoirs Not Mere Memories

Guest post by Tamara Hunter

A New York Times writer recently suggested, rather bluntly, that about three quarters of the memoirs on the market should never have seen the light of day.  

There was a time, Neil Genzlinger wrote, when “unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended”. Genzlinger knew he sounded harsh, but stuck to his conviction that the memoirs market is an absurdly bloated genre in dire need of culling.

I half expect award-winning Australian writer Carmel Bird to disagree – especially since she’s written an engaging guide for aspiring memoirists and when we spoke was preparing to give a workshop on the subject at the recent Perth Writers Festival.

However Bird, whose catalogue includes a collection of startlingly original short and long fiction and several writing guides, says Genzlinger has a point.

“The best thing he said – and I think this applies to all writing – is if you didn’t feel you were discovering something (as you wrote it) don’t publish it,” she says.

“Another great thing he said is ordeal without perspective is merely an ordeal. I couldn’t agree more. You’ve got to have perspective and perceptiveness and a lot other things – control of language and the like. And then he talked about immature writers writing memoirs and I agree with that as well.”

Clearly it’s one thing to have a fascinating life or experience – another entirely to write about it compellingly. While many memoirs may walk off the shelf due to the name on the jacket, that doesn’t necessarily make them good memoirs.

“Celebrity memoirs, for instance, are just full of trashy writing and sentimental cliché,” Bird says. “I think the celebs could write – but of course they don’t have to bother because the marketing decision is guided not by the quality of the memoir, but by the value of the celebrity.”

Bird doesn’t want to bag anyone in particular but cites a public figure who achieved remarkable things at a young age, only to turn out a memoir which proved to be the least interesting part of the whole story – a book which demonstrated that no matter what that person’s other qualities, they lacked any kind of passion for writing. Passion, says Bird, is key.

“There has to be a dedication and passion for the literary process at some level in order for the experience to be properly communicated, decently communicated, helpfully communicated to other people,” she says.

She refers to one of the books reviewed by Genzlinger – the only one of the four he cites to be reviewed positively – and highlights his description of it as a spare, beautiful exploration.

“That’s what we want, beautiful exploration; a beautiful exploration where the writer takes the reader’s hand and says ‘Well, let’s explore this together’ and the reader feels safe. And the reader feels they are having moments of revelation and illumination. That sounds a bit grand, but that’s what literature does – it illuminates you.”

Bird talks beautifully of the writer’s impulse to explain themselves to the world and the world to themselves.

“Sometimes in the process of doing that, the writer discovers that they have some insights about the world to offer to other people,” she says. “That is a gift that they can offer to the world, and when you offer someone a gift – say it’s cookies – you make the best cookies you can. You wrap them up in nice paper and you tie them up with a bow and you write a nice card and you give them as a gift. Writing is the same – you do the best you can.”

So how do you find the writing equivalent of the pretty paper and bow?

“Experience, practice and reading,” Bird responds at once. “Life experience, practising writing, and reading good writing. If you want to write fiction, you read fiction. If you want to write memoirs, you read memoirs.”

After years spent teaching others in workshops and classes, Bird is of the considered opinion that anybody who puts their mind to it can write simply, cleanly, and in a way that engages readers – especially once encouraged to throw away cliché and elaborate, empty phrases and vocabulary.

“But in there there’s a writer, isn’t there? They put their mind to it. They don’t only put their mind to it – they put their heart, their mind, their time, their life, everything to it. And if they do that, they can do it.”

Bird, who also wrote the disarming Dear Writer, a series of warm, humorously instructive letters from a fictional manuscript assessor to an aspiring writer of fiction, says memoir writing can be even more emotionally draining than fiction.

“Not always. I mean fiction writing can be very demanding on the writer, depending on what they’re writing about. But memoir writing can really touch the heart of the writer very, very deeply, and be very troubling as they’re writing.”

Painful as it can be though, Bird says that ultimately writing should be a pleasurable process.

“I mean, if you can’t derive pleasure from it, don’t do it. I’m writing a novel at the moment and I have to dedicate a lot of time every day to that, which means there are other things that I can’t do. Now I would prefer to do the novel than to do the other things, to tell you the truth, but there are choices I have to make.

“On the other hand, as I sit at the computer writing that novel, I’m having the greatest fun. It’s not a funny novel, but I’m having the best time, and I’m getting a lot of pleasure. I’m sitting there discovering something. That’s what I’m doing – I’m discovering. And I can’t do it in my head. I can think up something or other about the novel that’s something I might write tomorrow but until I write it, I don’t discover it, and it’s a marvellous, marvellous feeling to discover the thing as you go along. And when the writer is making those discoveries, the ultimate reader will go along and discover too.”

She comes back to the idea of writing as a gift, saying that once you write something down – even in a diary that isn’t discovered for 100 years – you’re transferring your thoughts, your life, your heart and your feelings to at least one other person.

“We read Samuel Pepys’ diary, from I don’t know how many hundred years ago, but the life that brings to that era is extraordinary. Of course he was probably a genius, but anybody can do it to a degree. It doesn’t mean that every memoir is going to be a best seller. Not every child who learns the violin ends up at Carnegie Hall, but they can give pleasure by playing their little concert to their friends, to their family. So I think there is a place for remembering that writing fiction, but in particular writing memoirs, is a gift that the writer is offering other people.

“Anybody can write. They can all write. But it’s about passion and love for it, and dedication and discipline and giving it the time and space. And dignity – giving writing its dignity.

“I know it sounds kind of airy fairy and impossible, but I do think that if people write with the truth of their own hearts, then they will write well.”


Carmel Bird is a leading Australian novelist and short story writer who has been repeatedly short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. Her novels include Cape Grimm, Red Shoes, The White Garden and The Bluebird Cafe. She is the author of several short story collections and has edited several anthologies including The Stolen Children – Their Stories, and most recently, Home Truth. She has taught writing extensively and has written three books of writing advice including Writing the Story of Your Life: The Ultimate Guide. Her most recent novel is Child of the Twilight. She grew up in Tasmania and now lives in Victoria. Some of Bird’s writing can be found here:

More from the 2011 Perth Writers Festival >

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2 Responses to Memoirs Not Mere Memories

  1. jgavinallan says:

    Your piece is excellent. It made me question some of your opinions. Got me to thinking.
    First, I agree—memoir writing does touch the heart of the writer…that is the problem. Sometimes, I mask a part of my life by putting it in a scene or a character’s reaction. Suddenly, I start to tear-up.
    Writing, pleasurable? I can’t believe I am comparing writing to football practice but it is a good analogy. While being forced to wait for someone during a practice session, while sitting on the side reading, I heard the coach talk in a clam voice to some of his assistances. “Practice isn’t suppose to be fun. It suppose to be f_ _ _ing misery. Its the game where you have dah fun!” I guess the pleasure comes from being published? It sure doesn’t come from the “practice.”

    beautifully written


    • jgavinallan says:

      I forgot to add…the coach turned red-faced hen he saw me sitting there.

      Wonderful post

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