The Art of the Memoir
Why Memoir Is Such An Important Genre
In this age of podcasts, we are frequently and subconsciously engaging with memoir in distilled form. Our journeys are often spent listening to the details of people’s lives, from interviews with our favourite celebrities to the funny anecdotes of ordinary people. If we have become so invested in the lives of others, why is memoir such a neglected genre by young people?
I think it likely has much to do with the interchangeable use of the words ‘memoir’ and ‘autobiography’. Autobiographies are typically chronological and cohesive works by a well-known person later in their life, documenting their experiences and achievements, read typically by those with a particular interest in that individual. Memoirs are contemplative and intimate pieces of writing, which situate themselves in the current moment and can be written by anyone at any point in their life. Whilst there is perhaps sometimes an overlap, I want to make it clear that this article is by no means an endorsement of the no doubt insufferable autobiographies of ex-Prime Ministers and Youtubers, but rather a celebration of raw, self-reflective writing which helps to form part of a shared human experience.
Memoirs are too often wrongly viewed as the self-absorbed musings of old celebrities. They are relics of specific points in time, offering striking, individual perspectives free from agenda. As 21st century life becomes increasingly contrived and curated, I recommend turning to memoirs for the refreshment of real life. I have gathered a few of my favourites, so please find below either fodder for the already avid memoir reader, or alternatively my effort to tempt all memoir-virgins to dip their toes into this criminally underrated genre.
First up is Deborah Levy’s mini-memoir, Things I Don’t Want to Know, the first of three instalments in her ‘living autobiography’ series. In the her feminist response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, Levy explores her troubled childhood in apartheid South Africa, her emigration to the UK and what it is to be a female writer. With striking honesty, she documents the difficult feelings of displacement and directionlessness she has experienced throughout her life. She masterfully weaves politics and reflections on the writing process into her narrative and each page brims with beautiful and infinitely quotable lines: "A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly”.
The next unmissable memoir is the work of The Sunday Times agony aunt, Dolly Alderton. Resident of the bedside tables of every woman aged 18 to 30, Everything I Know About Love is a millennial memoir, dubbed “Nora Ephron for the Tinder generation”. It deals with the trials and tribulations of early adulthood and modern womanhood, detailing the prevailing power of friendship in the face of the messy twenties. Interspersed throughout this masterpiece are comfort recipes, shopping lists, and sarcastic parodies of emails we’ve all received. Witty and poignant in equal measure, Alderton is refreshingly honest but offers generous helpings of optimism for all readers who may need it. The most important lesson that she has learnt in 28 years, however, is surely that “everyone should own a Paul Simon album, a William Boyd book and a Wes Anderson film”.
Also eminently worthy of a read, if not several, is the memoir of the nation’s funniest man, Bob Mortimer. Mortimer’s memoir, And Away, opens with the sound advice to “always enter your shoes before wearing them”. In 2015 the comedian Bob Mortimer was diagnosed with a heart condition that required immediate surgery, an event which frames his work. In part one, which is made up of stories from Bob’s youth, each chapter charmingly begins with lyrics of a song from these years. As is to be expected, this book is hilarious, but to my surprise it was also the most moving thing I’ve read all year. Read at your own risk, belly ache and tear-filled eyes guaranteed.
Finally, we have what is broadly considered one of the best memoirs of all time and an undeniable classic, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, written about his time spent in Paris in the 1920s with other members of the Lost Generation. Hemingway recalls his encounters and sometimes friendships with Getrude Stein, Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. In true Hemingway fashion it is bitchy and borderline cruel in places. He perfectly captures the café culture of post-war Paris, in which he was “very poor and very happy”. Hemingway also reflects on the art of writing, offering some apt guidance for every student in the depths of writing an essay: “I always worked until I had something done and I always stopped when I knew what was going to happen next. That way I could be sure of going on the next day”.
Illustration: William Geffroy Dashe