I’ve been thinking a lot about memoirs lately. Memoirs, by definition, are simply an account of personal experience. And they are growing in popularity. Some memoirs share little known worlds, such as Frank McCourt’s Irish village in Angela’s Ashes, which was published in the 1990s and opened the flood gates for the waves of memoirs we see now. (If you’re wondering what the difference is between a memoir and an autobiography, they can be exactly the same. However, a memoir can also focus on just one aspect or phase in a person’s life). Some share unique perspectives on common life experiences, like mothering or losing a lot of weight. Some are funny, some are tragic. Actually, a lot of them are tragic.
Jeanette Walls started her illustrious writing career with the internationally bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle. It tells of the author’s eccentric and often negligent parents and her experiences with them. If you haven’t read it, it’s well written and quite fascinating… but I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why the memoir genre is so strong. Why is reading about a four-year-old girl who cooks her own hot dogs addicting? Of the top five nonfiction books on the NY Times Best Sellers list this week, three are memoirs. And I’m only feeding the frenzy–I’ve read more memoirs in the last couple of years than I had in the previous years of my life combined. But I’m starting to wonder: why? It may be inspiring to see a victim of abusive parents rise above and become a resilient person. I sure learned a lot about Irish poverty in Angela’s Ashes. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do with the knowledge memoirs give me. Yesterday, I finished The Silver Star, Jeanette Walls’s second novel. It was not a memoir, but it read like one and had many similarities to Walls’s own memoir. Knowing the past Walls came from as she wrote the book, this quote stands out to me:
“‘Don’t be afraid of your dark places,’ Mom told her. ‘If you can shine light on them, you’ll find treasure there.”
This idea that there is treasure in the blackest circumstances, that strength can be built into people as they struggle, that hardships are creating perfection, is a pretty darn old idea. In fact, it’s in the Bible. But I don’t think Walls was making a biblical reference. I think she was summarizing what the rush for memoirs is all about: people want something good to come out of the bad in life. Even if it’s just by reading a memoir that proves the human spirit can overcome, people have an innate desire for their experiences to be meaningful, or at least shared. Memoirs can do that. They can make the writer feel like they’re encouraging people, or bringing to light a neglected topic. Memoirs can be good. I know there is value in honesty, shared experiences, and exposing ongoing injustices. I’ve been confused by why people are drawn to these hard stories, why I’m reading them, but I’ve come to this: I like to think that reading memoirs about hard times helps me when I find myself in a position that requires me to simply sit with someone else in the dark times and understand their need to share it with someone.
So by reading certain memoirs and just experiencing life, we know there is darkness all around and memoirs are often honest accounts of real life that can be enriching or informative. However…as I read memoirs, I start to appreciate more and more those authors that pushed away the darkness and chose to shed light. The truth is there are few authors (or people) who don’t have dark experiences lurking in their pasts. There are certain authors whose work has been so central to my development as a person since childhood, they’re almost like patron saints in my life. (I’m not Catholic- just go with me on this). People like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. These writers wrote beautiful, rich, original works that are full of the joy of living and the magic in every day imagination. I knew their works through and through long before I learned about their lives. I was in shock when I grew up and learned that they lived stories not at all like the books they wrote. Most literature fans know Jane Austen was a poor spinster who never married, and lived under the thumb of her father. Louisa May Alcott could have written a riveting account of her eccentric father’s spartan style of living and raising children. Alcott was poor for most of her life, and at one point as an adult considered suicide. C.S. Lewis’s mother died when he was a child, he had a distant father and grew up in boarding schools, and when he finally found love in life, it was through terminal illness. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s father died when she was three and her family moved around England until they finally left for Tennessee when Burnett was age 15. During their move, Burnett’s usually sympathetic and loving mother made Burnett burn her early writings. And, most disheartening of all to me, L.M. Montgomery struggled with depression and had a mostly loveless marriage.
These authors could have chosen to write some very shocking accounts of the brutal reality in this world. But what did they choose to write? They wrote books filled with light. How did these people decide to push aside the darkness around them and bring light through their works? Are we to think that they were just extremely dishonest? That they cause their readers to lose their grip on reality? You’re entitled to that opinion if you want it, but I am extremely thankful that they created exquisite characters and settings. They wrote about older folks who adopt orphans, sisters who are best friends, friendships that turn into pure love, and a Lion who is not safe but good. Maybe their worlds are more fantastic than rFeal, but I don’t think so. I think they chose to focus on the good things. Their books put me in a frame of mind to seek out loveliness in life. God created beauty in this world, and authors can bring that to readers’ attention through words.
There is always beauty and ugliness coexisting here. We can ignore the ugly, but we shouldn’t belittle the beauty or scoff at it as if it’s not real. It is real. Sometimes the beauty and the ugly are so tangled, it’s hard to really see. The memoirs I’ve been reading lately do a lot of focusing on the ugly. That can tend to get me down. I’m learning to be thankful for the reminder to share in someone’s darkness and help him or her through hard times, but to keep striving to stand in the light. Some memoirs make it easy to wade around over and over again in our deep and murky waters. Other books are the literary equivalent of keeping the lights on all night and shying away from any trace of shadow. As readers, we are able to take in both kinds of books and all the ones in between. We read, and we are able to see both the beauty and pain, light and darkness, funny and tragic, and accept that it is all real and present around us.
Acknowledge the darkness, but shed light. That’s what memoirs and are teaching me.
Read any good memoirs lately? Here are the ones I’ve liked in the last couple of years:
Sparkly Green Earrings – Lighthearted, laugh out loud mom-memoir with some deep thoughts mixed in
Desperate – So good for mothers of young children
Surprised by Oxford – Told by an atheist intellectual who found Jesus when she didn’t want to
The Hiding Place – Timeless
The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels – Just girly and funny