I’ve been a memoirist since childhood. It started with drawing. Pencil gripped in my fist, I scrawled out the things I saw in my head: herds of horses; packs of wolves; a toothy, bat-winged dragon. These creatures did things I witnessed in my dreams and in my waking life, as I tumbled about in the woods or stared spacily at the walls while my mother tried to get my attention. The adults around me hailed my scrawlings as budding creativity, but to me it was only an observational skill. Perhaps they’re one and the same.
Then I learned to read. The pencil in my fist began, clumsily, to form letters. I wrote stories at first, not unlike the stories I buried myself in; Jack London-esque fantasies of wolves and sled-dogs howling deep in the northern woods. The fact that I lived in those very woods, that they were my playground, only lent kindling to the fire of my stories.
Soon enough, though, I developed an inner life that began to pressure me for a different kind of writing. A sort of angsty, antagonistic relationship to myself that forced the words out. My stories gradually morphed into a lifelong journaling habit. Like an addict, I returned to the page every night to unload the vagaries of unrequited teenage love, the heartbreak of hairstyles gone horribly awry, and the unfolding dramas between my mother and myself. “Know thyself,” exhorted Socrates, and though I did not understand this at the time, I was familiarizing myself with human nature through my self-study.
The journals recorded not only me, but my surroundings, my era. The 80’s and early 90’s marched across its pages in bubbled cursive: my mullet in high school, my unrelenting crush on Bono, the unfortunate camel-toe jeans with paisley designs printed all over, and the day my mother took them away and forced me into a shoulder-padded, elastic-belted dress as punishment for a bad grade in math. I bled all over it when I got my first period; this happened in French class, where I froze like a calf in the boards, doomed for slaughter, nowhere to run.
Thanks to my journaling habit, I can see the honest arc from health to illness and back to health, and remind myself that I am not, in fact, mad anymore. I know myself, and thus human nature, better for having been the subject of my own research for many years.
The journal captured Desert Storm: America’s first declaration of war since Vietnam, and the first in my lifetime. How innocent my shock seems now, when I read those pages! And finally, it captured the landscape of an inner world stretched at times frighteningly close to the breaking point. I did not know then that I suffered from madness, but it loomed on the horizon. I can see it now, a long shadow cast over the years. It is there, faithfully outlined in the journals: 1994, 1998, 2001, 2006, 2009. Longer and longer it grows through the years. And, conversely, it begins to fade after my hospitalization and subsequent acceptance of a new and healthier lifestyle. I can see the honest arc from health to illness and back to health, and remind myself that I am not, in fact, mad anymore. I know myself better for having been the subject of my own research for many years.
I was a weird kid, granted, and I might not have had a lot of company in my journaling fanaticism; but I wasn’t the only one recording my memories. In the pre-smartphone world, my compatriots and I wrote bad poetry to our crushes and forever friends. I certainly wasn’t alone in committing my wild emotions and wavering loyalties to paper: I still have notes written from friends and slyly passed around in the classroom, our version of texting. I’ve held onto these, and the many letters and cards written in college, like a time capsule from a distant civilization. I have held onto very little else in my life, but these feel like history; not only my own, but ours. Our collective history, us Generation X-ers growing up in a Cold War we barely understood.
Which, when I think about it, is what memoirists do. We record our version of events as they happened to us, within a collective history. It might read like a combat zone, magical realism or a treatise on Zen. But my interpretation of the influx of teenage hormones or the meteoric rise of U2 or the way it felt to show up to school with an accidental mullet (which was, actually, Bono’s exact haircut for awhile but I digress) will be different to how it felt for somebody else going through the same events. They will be my experiences of those events — achingly funny, tragic, profound — recorded as faithfully as possible.
Memoir as a form of expression may truly be batshit, because we know that if we write well — which is to say with a curiosity and awareness almost brutal in their self-exposure — you may revile us for what you’re reading. We know that our families, if the book involves them, almost certainly will. Still, we write.
Memoir is rooted in French; memoire, literally, memory. Memoirists, then, are rememberists. We remember creatively. We confess our filters and flaws, waving our dirty undies about like the flags of secret wars suddenly bursting from messy closets. We take our clothes off in public, stripping bare the vagaries of time, trauma, emotion and raw human drives. Rememberists perhaps are born of a certain madness. Memoir as a form of expression may truly be batshit, because we know that if we write well — which is to say with a curiosity and awareness almost brutal in their self-exposure— you may revile us for what you’re reading. We know that our families, if the book involves them, almost certainly will. Still, we write.
Rememberists have faced sharp criticism for baring it all, and for doing so with unskilled, unglamorous writing. While I am myself a sharp critic of unskilled writing in any genre, I cannot condone this idea that writing about one’s own life is mere self-indulgence. It’s true that some memoirs come off as self-pitying cries for attention. But I would argue that many others, and the genre in itself, act as a road map of the human experience. They are an internal chronicle of external events, evidence that we think, dream, believe, agonize, humorize and memorialize on levels no one outside our own minds could have guessed at. And that such inner turmoil is not only normal, but forgivable, even lovable. How else do we know ourselves but through story? How better to see ourselves but through the memories of others, which are extensions of our own?
I wonder — given this quality of memoir, of memory — what is its future? Has it reached its peak? Humans being born into this sped-up world, many of whom will grow up in the virtual world and interface daily with AI; will they be writing their memoirs in twenty or thirty years? There’s a troubling trend that suggests an atrophy of imagination and creativity among children who do not have a chance to interact with the physical space around them. Stranger still, digital amnesia is a thing now, especially (but not exclusively; I myself suffer from this) among teens who’ve grown up with smart devices in their hands. And this, increasingly, is a lot of them: almost 40% of the world’s population owns smartphones, and children make up a large chunk of that percentage. Across cultures, borders, and socioeconomic divides, people are obtaining smartphones at younger and younger ages.
If a memoirist is truly one who remembers, and we are losing our power to remember, then it follows that memoir may be a dying art. Perhaps in the near future, memoir will become a genre specific to societies, or segments of our society, who live with restricted access to smart devices. A form of expression reserved solely for those whose brains still operate in the real world vs the virtual one, and who can “re-member” the past, rebuild it for us through the lens of their intact memories. They will be able to tell us what happens here, in reality, while we are in the rabbit-hole. They will become, in effect, anchors for a world moving ever-faster and more uncertainly into a strange future, ala Elon Musk’s worst fears. Memoir will become quaint, a historical artifact preserved in the cloud or relegated to strange things called “bookshelves” if still found in print at all.
Perhaps a valuable, sought-after artifact. For there is something undeniably alluring about memoir, some visceral pull to open its pages. And, equally undeniably, the same powerful pull to write it. Perhaps that pull is nothing more complex than our own mortality, even amidst the comfortable numbness of all our technology. In Old Friend from Far Away, her Zen-like instruction manual for budding memoirists, Natalie Goldberg writes:
“What is asked is not easy. You lose everything in the act of writing. Are you willing? It all goes down the drain anyway when we die. And I promise, we will die. Maybe the best thing is to be used up before we go…It’s why we write memoir, not to immortalize but to surrender ourselves. It is our one great act of generosity. To drop that old yellow coat of our needs and desires and give pleasure through stories.”
As long as humans exist, our stories will continue. For now, we still have bodies; and bodies stubbornly root us to hunger, lust, the scent of rain and sweat, the pain of old bones and the sting of frost. They thrill to the touch of a dog’s coat or the sound of a baby’s laugh. They anchor us here, force us back into the present. The best rememberists write from this ground, traveling back in time to the many present moments they’ve lived; they mine these and press pen to page and bring them back to life.
While the world moves forward into virtual reality and AI, the rememberists remain here, in this moment, then the next and the next, smelling and tasting and aching and fucking and dying. They will transcribe these things like voyagers from a parallel world, and keep them safe for us should we choose to return.
Thank you for reading! I have a book of poetry out and a memoir on the way.