What’s the purpose of a memoir?
I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately. These books occupy an odd space between fiction and nonfiction. They’re true stories, but they’re marketed like novels and the audience is mostly the same. I used to think of them as simply novels-plus. All the drama and entertainment of a made-up story, with the added emotional thrill of knowing that this really happened.
But why do people write them? Is it all just narcissism? Cheaper than therapy? And why do readers love memoirs so much?
Then it hit me. We read fiction to be entertained and we read nonfiction to be informed, but we read memoirs to be inspired. The unspoken subtitle for every single memoir is “the inspiring true story of…”
Wild by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about loneliness. Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest trail by herself, while dealing with a divorce and the death of her mother and also kicking a drug habit. Reading about the way she dealt with her loneliness made me feel like I could also cope with feeling alone.
Heather Sellers has face blindness. She can’t recognize faces, not even of the people she loves, and the condition has no cure. Reading You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know was heartbreaking, but watching Sellers handle one deeply awkward situation after another made me see my own social blunders as no big deal.
Chris Gardner went from homelessness to running a successful brokerage firm, never losing sight of his dream, no matter how bleak things got. He never felt sorry for himself, nor did he let others feel sorry for him. Reading The Pursuit of Happyness showed me how to be strong, no matter what life throws at me.
My own life has been full of ups and downs. I’ve lived in interesting places, met a wacky bunch of characters, and dealt with some tough challenges. But I never had the urge to put my own life on paper. Memoir writing is not my thing. But I will continue to read memoirs, because finding that rush of inspiration between the covers of a book is like no other feeling in the world.
About the author: Alex Kourvo writes short stories and novels. She finds other people fascinating.