Books about memoir tend to be serious. Writers theorize about the role of memory, wonder about its reliability, and offer suggestions about how to write artfully.
This one is different. Nancy K. Miller has written a witty and thoughtful book about memoir. She writes about her own life while splicing in bits of contrast and comparison with other memoirs written by contemporaries. She also takes the reader on a tour of the times which influence the stories she shares–by showing us what she was wearing (in the 60’s it was a knit dress) and telling us what she and others of her generation were doing.
At the heart of this book lies a fascinating assertion that memoir as a genre is not narcissistic or solipsistic (as its critics claim) but rather communal. Having turned 50 in the decade of the 1990’s, Miller began to gobble up memoir and discovered as she did so she was simultaneously excavating her own life and contributing to the larger narrative of educated women’s lives after the upheavals of the 1960’s. To use postmodernist language, she sees her own life as a text connected to other texts.
All that sounds a little pretentious and heavy-handed when I describe it, but not when Miller does so at her best. Listen to her explain her intent: “I explore two propositions: the first, that the subjects of life writing (memoir, diary, essay, confession) are as much others as ourselves; the second, that reading the lives of other people with whom we do not identify has as much to tell us (if not more) about our lives as the lives in which we do.” and “When I read the lives of others, I also see my childhood, my mother, the craziness of my family.”
When Miller reads the memoir of another woman who graduated from Hunter College, she recognizes that her own memories are so different they might have taken place in different cities if not on different planets. She concludes therefore that memoir teaches us that “all we have are flashes.” Not only that, but these flashes are more like fiction than history.
To give you the real flavor of her style and her thesis, here’s the last paragraph from the title essay: “That’s why I devour memoirs the way some people read detective stories or thrillers. After all, there are crimes, mostly of the heart, and mysteries. Memoirs provide me with suspense of a different order. Will she stop falling in love with the wrong man, get a better job . . . sit down and write her poetry, her novel, or her memoir. Will you? You think, OK, her life is populated by famous and semifamous people; her life is glamorous or tragic. Your father wasn’t a writer or a cook, just a lawyer or a businessman. Your mother didn’t drink or suffer from tuberculosis. You didn’t grow up in Ceylon or, closer to home, Texas. You are not now, thank God, dying of breast cancer, or AIDS. But still, you can’t help returning to your own life as if there were some magical, meaningful thread leading from the memoir writers to you. The six degrees of separation that mark the distance from your life to another’s are really, as it turns out, degrees of connection. And my memoir is also about you.”
Nancy K. Miller’s memoir is not about me. Yet she is right about the way in which I compare my life to hers as I read about her urban education (in contrast to my rural one), her Jewish upbringing (in contrast to my Mennonite one), her dance lessons with Martha Graham (in contrast to no permission to dance), etc. Yet we have much in common also. We were professors and now we are moving into old age, reflecting, remembering, wanting to understand ourselves, others, and the ages in which we have lived.
Is Miller right about memoir being more like fiction than history?
When you read memoir, how does it teach you about yourself–both in the commonalities and the differences?