Musings on Memoir

IMG_3777Just popped into the Sydney Writers’ Festival today to hear Caroline Baum interviewed about her memoir ‘Only’. It is about her life growing up as an only child of very controlling parents.  It was one of many memoirs I have read recently in an attempt to immerse myself in the genre, hopefully in preparation to write my own.

Caroline Baum used to read for a living at the rate of 20 novels a month thinking at the time she had “the dream job”.  She also discovered a dark side of reading.  It became an addictive obsession.  Not surprising when you think about the power reading has to connect us with others and help deal with feelings of isolation.

One memoir that she chose to prepare herself to write her own was another that I had just read; ‘Shy’ by Sian Prior.  This book influenced the thematic structure that she chose for her memoir and one that I am also attracted to.  However, I was even more impressed recently with Renee McBride’s ‘House of Lies’ which is truly a triumph in creative non-fiction.  It brilliantly uses devices normally used in fiction such as imagined dialogue, to build the story and characters,  something not all non-fiction writers can do. It remains to be seen whether I can but her narrative style allowed me to suffer her tragedies and and to celebrate her triumphs with enormous empathy.

But Back to Caroline Baum.  One thing she said today that resonated with me was that in her forties she made a conscious decision to separate from her parents. “The boundaries that had been so porous, solidified” and allowed her to become “the good enough daughter, not the perfect one.” In those few words she articulated my own experience to such an extent that I felt her hand reach across the crowd and hold mine.  In that moment I no longer felt alone.

Caroline says that she wrote memoir for other people like her who hate self-help books as much as she does and prefer to access help by sieving through the well written reflections of others.  She says that the power of a memoir comes from truth driven by anger and pain, “when you dip your pen into the murky waters of yourself.”

I was reminded of the purpose of all that pain we go through and the motivation of sharing it with others.  It was an hour well spent.

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