Jill Ker Conway, author of the wonderful memoir The Road from Coorain, couldn’t have said it better: “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” (The quote comes from the introduction to her anthology When Memory Speaks.)
Telling our life stories is as old as the cave paintings of the Stone Age and as new as YouTube and Facebook. We tell our stories to friends, lovers, children, therapists, and even strangers if they’ll listen. We hear other people’s stories and pass them on.
Writing down our life stories helps us see the narrative thread in our lives, reflect on the consequences of events and maybe find redemption or closure. But after we write, we need to share! Life stories, memoirs, autobiographies–whatever term we use–have been wildly popular for the past 20 years. In the 1990s, 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, social networking sites on the Internet, blogs, oral history organizations like StoryCorps, and an explosion of information sources about the lives 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. Even cookbooks are filled with personal stories about the cook and her family. Memoirs are personal by definition. But they’re more. They’re literary. 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 sometimes forget, is that memoir writers make use of the same creative toolkit.