The memoir is a surprising way of feeling good about things that are bad. Child abuse, alcoholism, bipolar rages — these topics sit in the souls of writers around my memoir workshop table. Nobody wants to linger much in a story full of sentiment and happiness. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Tolstoy was explaining in Anna Karenina why you have plenty of material for stories if you’ve had a family. You just need to know what’s important to include
Do a Google search on “feel good memoir” and the results include a page from NPR, lauding “memoirs written with heart.” There’s trouble in every one. A tsunami, a student who bullies a teacher with online stalking, war in Sarajevo, a fatal brain tumor in an infant: there’s trouble in every book on the page. When your identical twin dies in a terrible act of violence, the story does not lie in the violence, or even the way you adored her before death. The story is in the redemption and renovation you pursued after the trouble. Every misstep along your path is trouble that follows the trouble.
A friend once said the compelling storyline we all crave is as simple as two lines
Man falls into hole
Man climbs out of hole
In Marion Roach Smith’s excellent memoir guide, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life“>The Memoir Project, she reports about her usual assignment to her students: 750 word essays. But she hears from students they plan to write about “gender.” Or maybe “my great-grandmother.” Uh-oh, she says, “Those proposed topics must be shrunk, or the writer… will have failed to wrestle onto the page a monster of unmanageable heft.”
Big topics become personal when we look for moments of discomfort we endured. Okay, she says, so Grandmother’s recipes for cookies and the smell of her hands never became a part of your life, because “she was a drunk,” like one writer told Smith. Okay, there’s a story there about what you did not have, and how you overcame that.
When you went home with your college roommate for Christmas and her whole blond family moored itself about the granite island in the Greenwich, Connecticut kitchen to ice the holiday cupcakes, just many of them did you cram into your mouth, trying to full up that gaping hole in your heart?
Not-having leads to yearning. The pursuit of peace, of the tradition of cupcake-icing, is your climbing out of the hole. Being in the hole is trouble. There is room for sentimental memories in memoir, but only if they help us experience the climbing-out part of your memoir.