Dani Shapiro Explains Memoir Is Not Autobiography

29 Jan

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When I tell people I write memoir, they tell me that they don’t think they could ever write memoir. Their lives are too normal. No one would want to read about their boring lives. The implication is that they think I must be pretty hot on myself if I’m writing memoir.

But that’s not what memoir is about.

In her excellent “Open letter from Dani Shapiro: ‘Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook‘” on Salon, Shapiro provides clarity on what memoir is and isn’t and why we read it:

Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir “Slow Motion” because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Read that last sentence again:

You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Beautiful. A lot of memoir writing and reading is about understanding ourselves and our life stories better.

She goes on to further explain that memoir tells an aspect of one’s life through a specific viewpoint:

The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records.

I spent a lot of my time talking about the differences between memoir and autobiography while getting my MFA, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me point blank if writing memoir means I can just make things up. Um, no. If I wanted to make things up, I’d fiction, which frankly, sounds more appealing. Who really wants to write about themselves, to open their lives up for others’ critique? No, memoir sticks to the truth, but it is not journalism. We create dialogue out of the cobwebs of our memory, not through a transcribed secret recording of our entire lives. There are things we leave out, not because we are necessarily hiding things, but because they are irrelevant to the story we are telling. The reader doesn’t need to hear about my commute, for example, unless of course something about my commute is interesting or is relevant to understanding who I am or is a metaphor.

I recommend reading Shapiro’s article in full if you’re interested in memoir as a genre. Also, check out her great blog.

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4 Responses to “Dani Shapiro Explains Memoir Is Not Autobiography”

  1. Sharon Rawlette January 29, 2014 at 6:24 am #

    Thanks for this link! I’m a big fan of Shapiro’s. In fact, I can’t think offhand of any memoirist whose work I’d read before hers. Her recent book Still Writing was a gem!

    • Stephanie Nikolopoulos January 29, 2014 at 11:38 am #

      Shapiro is an expert on memoir! After reading her work were you inspired to read more of the genre?

      • Sharon Rawlette January 29, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

        Well, I’ve always been very drawn to memoir, but very few memoirists come close to Shapiro’s style and grace.

      • Stephanie Nikolopoulos January 29, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

        I haven’t read Still Writing yet, but I’ll have to check it out!

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