The TRAVELOGUE, the memoir of a journey can be a particularly entertaining form of autobiographic writing if it doesn’t fall into simply describing “what you saw” in dutiful chronological order. The form is at least as old as Margery Kemp’s thirteenth century “as told to” account of her travels through England as an eccentric single older woman. In our time Paul Theroux’ The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express and The Iron Rooster and Peter Mayle’s A Year In Provence demonstrate that it is not so much the journey or place, but the character, feelings and reactions of the author which hold our interest. Somewhat irascible narrators seem to write the most compelling travel memoirs, probably because their exacting personalities put them into constant conflict with their foreign surroundings.
The AUTOBIOGRAPHIC SHORT STORY as it appears in magazines is often indistinguishable from first person short fiction. In writing an autobiographic short story you take a single, small turning point in your life as the epiphany of the story. Sometimes episodes in your life may suggest a particular literary style or genre, so there can be autobiographic ghost stories, autobiographic comedies of manners, autobiographic magic realism. Ray Bradbury’s collection of short stories about his charmed childhood, Dandelion Wine, although memoir, reads like his science fiction.
Autobiographic short stories can be written piecemeal, published individually in different magazines, and later collected in a book. Nearly all the stories in Pam Houston’s Cowboys are my Weakness were first published in women’s or literary magazines as short fiction. Yet assembled they can be read as the memoir of a woman who keeps finding herself in relationships with guys “whose favorite song is Desperado.” An earlier example of this appealing ‘two for one’ form is Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Each of his autobiographic stories is complete in itself, and together they make a coherent memoir of Isherwood’s life in Berlin in the late 1930’s.
The AUTOBIOGRAPHIC NOVEL differs from the thematic memoir in the degree to which it fictionalizes the author’s experiences. Pat Conroy wrote two autobiographic novels, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides, about a boy’s childhood dominated by a father who, like his own, was overbearing and abusive. In both books names and identifying details are fictionalized, but the characters have the problems of Conroy’s actual family members. In The Great Santini the father is a Marine lieutenant, in The Prince of Tides he is a shrimper, but in both novels he instills the same fear in his sons.
The autobiographic novel is a solution for those who have a whopper of a story to tell, but cannot for various reasons publish it as a memoir. Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar about a teenage girl’s nervous breakdown, closely follows the events of Plath’s early life.
In calling her work a novel, even an autobiographic novel, an author distances herself from the subject matter and tells the reader, “Do not ask me about this. I have given you what matters in this story in the most beautiful language I can find. In making it a novel I have assumed a boundary of protection for myself and others. Do not cross it; do not pry.” In calling her work a novel, the author is also making a claim to its artistic merit. In some cases it is easier to publish an autobiographic novel than a memoir, but the writing must be of higher literary quality than is required of most memoirs.
The COMPLAINT differs from autobiographic protest literature because the author does not find his or her oppression in social causes but in the misdeeds of a particular person. It is a very publishable form of Portrait if the author’s subject is famous. Examples include:
It is a natural fantasy to imagine getting even with someone by exposing them in your memoirs, and revenge can fuel great writing, but for the most part complaints suffer like bad novels from one dimensional characterizations and an overly simplified Manichean vision of the world.
The CONCEPTUAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY is a twentieth century innovation, akin to New Journalism, where the author goes out and does something outrageous or puts himself into an unusual situation in order to write about the experience. The earliest example may be George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London where Orwell intentionally allowed himself to fall into miserable poverty so he could report how men live on the bottom rung of society. In order to experience racial discrimination first hand and write Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin dyed his white skin to make himself appear to be an African-American. Cameron Crowe pretended to be a high school student to write Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Nancy Weber put an ad in the Village Voice offering to swap her home, job, friends and lover with another woman in order to write Life Swap.
For a writer who is not well-known, conceptual autobiography may be the most publishable type if you can come up with a fresh concept, live through it, and write about it with insight. But such life experiments can be dangerous, and they are essentially artificial. Sue Estroff, a social anthropologist, wrote about her attempt to live among the street “crazies” in Madison, Wisconsin’s flop houses to study their culture. She wrote a profoundly moving account which demonstrates that how we treat the mentally ill makes them more crazy, but in the process of living like them and even taking their medication, she nearly lost her own sanity.
All the best writers who have tried to become someone else in order to write about it have learned that you cannot really know another’s life experience. You can gain insights, you can observe other people’s reactions to how you appear, but still you are yourself assuming a costume and a role.
Autobiographic WORKS OF HUMOR range from vanilla souffles to black bitters. Erma Bombeck wrote autobiographic personal essays and books about ridiculousness of domestic life such as The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank and If Life is a Bowl of Cherries what am I doing in the Pits?. S.J. Perelman showed the humor in cultural misunderstandings in The Swiss Family Perelman, about his family’s temporary relocation to Thailand in the 1940’s. Art Buchwald mixes his practiced wit with painful childhood memories in Leaving Home. Comedian Rick Reynolds developed a successful one man show, “Only the Truth is Funny,” based on the professional and personal failures of his life. It was when he gave up, moved to a small town and wrote only the truth to please himself that he came up with a work that brought him success. The most beloved contemporary authors of autobiographic works of humor are David Sedaris, Amy Sedaris, David Rakoff, and Sarah Vowell.
FAMILY HISTORY or the FAMILY SAGA is often considered a form of autobiographic narrative because it is one person’s exploration of self-identity, but it is not “I” writing about “I.” I have noticed that writers who try to record the stories of ancestors along with their own life often end up with two works instead of one. Family histories can fall into the dutiful and often laborious tracing of the family tree and the telling of disconnected anecdotes, unless enlivened with fictional devices and the an ever-present narrator’s voice.
If you wish to publish a work about ancestors, you will have to write it like a novel with all the devices and drama of fiction. The most famous published example is Alex Haley’s Roots.
DRAMAS and FILM SCRIPTS can be autobiographic works. Eugene O’Neill’s and Tennessee Williams’ powerful dramas are based on their experiences, and solo showcases based on a writer/actor’s own life are currently the rage. Dennis Palumbo wrote the script of the film My Favorite Year about his initiation into the television business, but autobiographic film scripts are rare. To fit your story into the structural requirements of a multi-character play or film demands a distance and objectivity about your material that few autobiographic writers have or should have. However, it you chose to try these forms, you’ll find the story structure guidelines in the previous chapters indispensible.
OTHER FORMS of autobiographic writing include some literature for children or young adults, personal newspaper or magazine columns such as those by Anna Quinlen, Ellen Goodman, and Ellen Snortland and personal magazine articles such as those in Reader’s Digest and Reminisce magazine.
ORIGINAL FORMS AND HYBRIDS. The most exciting examples of New Autobiography are combinations of forms which have never been tried before. Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is simultaneously a memoir, a novel and a cookbook. In Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, about having been committed to a mental institution, each chapter has qualities of poetry, the personal essay, and the short story. There are no transitions between chapters, but altogether the work is like a novel in that it follows a small group of characters and completes each of their stories. It also harks back to the historic memoir in that it includes validating documents, namely photocopies of hospital forms completed by Kaysen’s psychiatrists and nurses. The book’s combination of subjective narrative and clinical documentation emphasizes its thematic conflict, giving two opposing answers to the narrator’s question – was she or was she not sane? The impersonal nature of the clinical reports of her mental illness contradict the human intimacy and sanity of her narrative writing.
Having Our Say, a surprise bestseller adapted as a Broadway play is experimental in form because two sisters in their 80’s, Sarah Delany and Elizabeth Delany, collaborated to write one memoir. But perhaps the most original form of New Autobiography to date is Art Spiegelman’s Maus: A Survivor’s Tale. It is a comic strip in which Jews are mice and Nazis are cats, and, at the same time, an autobiographic exploration of Spiegelman’s relationship with his father, who recalls for his son his terrifying memories of being a hunted by Nazis. Since the publication of Maus, Autobiographic Graphic novels abound.
Tristine Rainer coined the word NOVOIR to describe her hybrid work Apprenticed to Venus.
novoir noun \no-vwär
1. a memoir with true characters and actual dialog, but with manipulation of chronology, structure and stylistic elements to read as a novel.
2. a naughty memoir
The novoir has the freedom of form and style as vast as that of the novel, while remaining committed to history just like the historical novel. Unlike the historical novel, however, a novoir includes the author’s point of view and personal experience.