Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and California gadabout, published his eagerly anticipated memoir, Spare, just a few months ago. It crushed bestseller charts. Plenty of juicy bits in those pages. Happily, many hundreds of equally provocative memoirs have entertained, shocked, and moved American readers over the years.
This has led inevitably to a robust memoir industry (featuring, as we’ll see in a moment, a popular memoir-vacay component). Legions of over-sharers and would-be authors have settled on an egoistic point of view: It’s all about me. (Most attention-grabbing title of the last year: I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy.)
Celebrities have of course long insisted on spilling their guts in book form, even when a pamphlet might have been sufficient. Lately, however, it seems nearly everyone up and down the block has been persuaded they’ve got a book in them.
Well no, no they don’t. Or, to be more specific if no less cruel, everyone’s intimate life narrative is not book-worthy. Maybe just keep a journal. If you believe you absolutely must get it all out, by all means, have at it. Pass the chapters around among friends. But unless you’re that rare bird with an exceptional manuscript, don’t expect me (or a publisher) to devote time and money to your tale about recovery or survival or encounters with aliens.
So, why the growing popularity of this genre? It’s about commercial publishing’s boundless search for salable material, surely, but it is also about self-therapy. When it comes to memoirs, the fundamental animating point is that it affords individuals an opportunity to exhale, a way for them — mostly women, it turns out — to relive (and relieve) a part of their lives by committing it to a hard drive.
Writer Joyce Maynard (her 1998 memoir, At Home in the World, was a literary sensation), whose workshops are among the most prized among memoiristas, recently said on Facebook that she focuses on students “who have carried a costly and terrible burden of feeling prohibited from the simple, pure act of expressing who they are, and what happened that shaped their lives.” It’s principally a self-help-ish kind of enterprise, this. And it does no doubt have intrinsic merit. Larry Grobel, a prolific California-based author (You Show Me Yours is among his memoirs) wrote to me that “I taught memoir writing at UCLA and found that it helps students get in touch with their inner feelings.” Again: therapy.
With that in mind, I contacted Karen Karbo (Yeah, No. Not Happening), a writer who not long ago relocated from Oregon to the Mediterranean coast. “I’m sure more people are writing than reading memoirs,” she said in a message to me. “Maybe that is as it should be … but writing to make sense of your life is time well-spent.”
Well, then how about spending time — and cash — traveling to a remote location to study memoir writing with the pros? Destination workshops have grown into quite a thing. Karbo’s will take you to the lovely French village of Collioure, where she now resides. Maynard’s, which costs about $4,000 for a week and includes a slew of leisure activities, is set alongside picturesque Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.
If you decide to attend a memoir retreat, how could I possibly fault you? You’re likely to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow students while studying craft, all of which you may one day choose to share in your own riveting (one hopes) memoir. Doesn’t mean I’ll want to read it, though.
In the March/April issue, Cable Neuhaus wrote about independent coffee shops.
This article is featured in the May/June 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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