Writing our own stories helps us see the narrative thread in our lives, reflect on the consequences of events and maybe find redemption or closure. Life stories, memoirs, autobiographies — whatever term we use–have been wildly popular for the past twenty to thirty years. In the 1990’s Frank McCourt‘s Angela’s Ashes and Mary Karr‘s The Liar’s Club, among others, sparked an enthusiastic response among readers that has yet to subside. Memoirs have elbowed their way into book discussion groups. Issues of truthfulness in memoirs have become front page and talk show news. Reality TV shows and social networking sites on the Internet, blogs, oral history organizations like StoryCorps, and an explosion of information sources about the life of celebrities, proclaim our fascination with this genre. The most popular nonfiction has a personal aspect to it. Popular histories focus on the role of the individual, self-help books reveal the struggles of the author, and true crime is always popular. Cookbooks are filled with personal stories about the cook and her family.
The best memoirs are shaped like novels: with a beginning, full of exposition and character development; a middle, often with climactic events; and an ending that ties up what came before with a satisfying resolution. We know that in fiction, the writer has used memory, experience, imagination, and all the tools of creative writing. What we must know is that memoir writers make use of the same creative toolkit.