Why Do We Read Memoirs?

by Jerry Payne

April 17, 2016


Recently, I read a very gratifying review of my book (Writing Memoir: The Practical Guide to Writing and Publishing the Story of Your Life) that nevertheless offered up one major criticism: I had, in quoting from Susannah Kaysen’s classic memoir Girl, Interrupted, dared to use an especially “distasteful” profanity in my book. This was patently offensive to this particular reviewer and tarnished an otherwise “five-star” effort.

It’s never my intention to offend, and I remember thinking long and hard about including the particular Kaysen passage in question. In the end, I decided to put it in. What I was conveying in the book at that point was how much we can learn about a character by dialogue. What I quoted was a snippet of dialogue that was very revealing about Kaysen’s mindset at that particular point in her memoir. The (offensive) phrase displayed her lack of sophistication, her earthiness. And she was speaking unabashedly in front of her doctor, thereby also revealing a certain naiveté and (ironically) innocence. It never occurred to her that she was saying anything offensive. All of this revealed much about Kaysen’s character in a precious few lines of speech. In other words, I used the passage precisely because of the profanity. And therein lies the context for the quote.

Well, you can’t please everybody, of course, but the review made me think about a larger question: why do we read memoirs, anyway? I’m sure the answer depends on the reader. But for me, I see memoirs as a wonderful way to stretch myself. Memoirs show us other walks of life, introducing us to people who think (and talk) differently than we do. Sometimes a memoir might not be comfortable to read. I would suggest that that is the exact reason we ought to read a memoir. To take us out of our comfort zone. To see the world from a completely different perspective. To experience something of life from another point of view, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s distressing, even if it’s painful. Even if it’s offensive.

The beauty is that we can do all of this from the comfort of our own living rooms. That’s the power of books, and the power of memoir in particular.

The other choice is to remain insulated, reading books about people and experiences that are already comfortably familiar to us. Books that don’t offend, in language or in deed. Books about people we agree with and whose ideas mirror our own. Books, in other words, that teach us very little.

There’s a big world out there, full of all sorts of people with all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of ideas. Much of that world a person might never see in a lifetime. Ah, but by simply opening up a good book—especially a gripping memoir—we can at least experience something of the world that we would otherwise never experience. That, at least it seems to me, is a fine reason to read memoir. By so doing, we can learn. We can grow. And there’s nothing offensive about that.


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