“Your Move, Chief,” Or Why I Love Memoir

My Goodreads data reveals a curious pattern. Over the last three years, more than half of the books I have read have been memoirs. That percentage keeps growing. In 2020 alone, 13 of 17 have been memoirs.

It’s not just me, either. Memoirs have proliferated throughout my lifetime. Readers keep reading them, and more and more writers (and celebrities) are writing them. Most of my recent favorites came from the national bestseller list. These include Educated by Tara Westover, Maid by Stephanie Land, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle.

But why am I reading so many more memoirs than anything else? More than novels, short stories, poetry, or impersonal nonfiction? Am I just extremely nosy?

When I tried to answer these questions for myself last week (yet again fixated on Mary Karr and Glennon Doyle), the first thing that came to mind was the pond scene from Good Will Hunting.

Sean (Robin Williams) has been trying to provide court-ordered therapy to Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In their first meeting, in which Sean attempts to get to know Will, Will deflects and evades every one of Sean’s questions. It ends when Will goes on the offensive and speculates (noticing a painting on the wall of a lone man navigating a fishing boat on a stormy sea) that Sean must have “married the wrong woman.” Switching tactics for their second meeting, Sean takes Will to a park and delivers the following dressing-down:

You got a thing for swans? Is this like a fetish? Something we need to devote some time to? – Will

The gist of the monologue is: Okay sure, Will, you’re extremely smart, good at retaining information, and making connections. But that, my friend, does not a man make.

Sean says:

I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. 

That’s it, I think. That’s why the memoir genre resonates with me, and why I consume insane numbers of them. I don’t read to educate myself; I read because I’m curious about people.

As Sean conveys to Will in the movie, it requires far more courage to share who you are and how you think than it does to quote or rehash someone else’s idea. Of course, Will knows this intuitively — as he demonstrates in the Harvard Bar scene, before he even meets Sean:

Who we are and how we see is the truest, most interesting thing each of us has to offer. In The Art of Memoir (2015), Mary Karr writes, “Most of us don’t read the landscape so much as we beam it from our eyeballs.” In other words, how we see comes from within; it’s a gift that cannot be stolen, only shared.

The same sentiment is captured in one of the final scenes from A Star is Born. Bobby (Sam Elliot) says to Ally (Lady Gaga): “Jack talked about how music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. . . All any artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.”

Other people’s stories, told well, do not get old. There are as many unique stories out there as there are people. I will happily read every single one of them.

* * *

Importantly, the truth value of a story has nothing to do with the number of shocking events in it. This perception of memoir is actually counterproductive and can tempt writers to falsity. For example, philanthropist Greg Mortenson wrote two bestselling memoirs about how he came to found a nonprofit supporting girls’ education in the Middle East. His first memoir, Three Cups of Tea (2007) was a national bestseller. I read it for a high school theology class circa 2010 and wrote a book report.

Shortly after Mortenson published a sequel, Stones into Schools (2011), investigative reporters, including John Krakauer, found reasons to doubt the veracity of both memoirs. (Read more about it here.) Krakauer ultimately published a book of his findings called Three Cups of Deceit. In any kind of nonfiction writing, readers have to be able to trust the narrator. Otherwise, the whole enterprise collapses. In other words, it does not matter how well you tell the story of getting captured by the Taliban if your readers find out that it never happened. If I had to burn books for fuel, these Mortenson memoirs would be the first to go. After all, who would read Three Cups of Tea now?

A second example of violating the cardinal rule of memoir-writing — that is, truth-telling — came across my desk this week courtesy of Thom:

Mike Lindell, i.e. the “My Pillow” guy, wrote a memoir titled What Are the Odds?: From Crack Addict to CEO. He boasts “14 near-death experiences,” and a story of “addiction, hope, and divine intervention.”

I don’t want to read Lindell’s book because I already don’t trust him. His promo reveals him to be an unreliable narrator. First, a grammar mistake: “Before this pandemic came upon us, I had already wrote. . . ” Then, he assures the audience that the book includes pictures that “validate” his stories. He concludes, apropos of nothing “By the time you’re done reading my book, you will believe that with God all things are possible.”

In sum, the only thing that really tanks a memoir, in my estimation, is any attempt to cheat the truth. The memoirs that have disappointed me over the years have been ones in which I can sense that I’m not getting the whole story.

This is particularly common (albeit understandable) with celebrity memoirs. Who knows if they even wanted to write the book. They have so little privacy as it is. It’s rare for a celebrity memoir to transcends this limitation. I remember reading Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, years ago and being disappointed. Even though it had funny moments and interesting stories, she refrained from any major introspection. She basically said “Someone made me write this for money; I would prefer not to talk about my divorce or anything personal,” and moved on to crowd-pleasing SNL anecdotes.

* * *

There is no one-size-fits-all version of the life story. We may arrive at the same central truths, the same 12 notes, but no one sees them in quite the same way as anyone else. Maybe that’s why I keep reading memoir after memoir. “It’s never new and it never gets old,” is how Llewyn Davis defines “folk song” in the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis. The same might be said of memoir, or life-writing.

As Sean says to Will on the park bench:

You’re an orphan, right? Do you think I’d know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?

“Does that encapsulate you?” Well, no. I guess not. Mary Karr writes in The Art of Memoir, “Getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle.” That is all this is about, really. Your move, chief.

5 thoughts on ““Your Move, Chief,” Or Why I Love Memoir

  1. Amazing essay! Thank you! What a great scene from ‘Good Will Hunting.’ And you’re right to highlight that one quote – “Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in.” The rest of his monologue, before that moment, builds so nicely to the simplicity and clarity and truth of that alternative route which is open to Will.

    As for Poehler book, lol, i totally get where you’re coming from. Part of why I’m going to buy and read songwriter Jeff Tweedy’s memoir is this winning quote. After telling readers he won’t bother with the specifics of his past drug addiction because it’s a fundamentally boring story and he wants to move on with his life, then he adds, Just kidding! “Jesus, of course I’m going to write about the drugs.” To quote Robin Williams in GWH, I’m in.

    On which topic btw, i really liked the memoirs of Nic Sheff, David Sheff, and Bill Clegg, respectively. And honestly, i’m not 100% sure I won’t buy the one by My Pillow guy. I would definitely buy one by former Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando, for that matter 😦

    Thank you for writing about memoirs! You reminded me how much I love them. Gonna go order the Jeff Tweedy one right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kit! Love all of that. Good points all around. I think I might need to order that Tweedy book, too. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the Anthony Kiedis heroin memoir Scar Tissue years ago.

      Like

  2. Since I am writing a memoir this post has been helpful. After six chapters into it I have left it for a while since it was starting with some deep hurtful stuff that involves people I love. They have given me permission to write about it but for sure I want to get it all correct, wait, correct is not the right word. that’s just it, I can’t find the right word so until I do the next chapter or two will have to wait. I wish I could talk about it, I am much better at talking than writing. Anyway, thanks for the helps.

    Liked by 1 person

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