Memoir: A “Bloated Genre?”

Last year, I joined our local writing association, hoping to meet like-minded writers. At a newcomers’ meeting, we introduced ourselves with brief bios.

“I write YA, though I’ve dabbled in poetry and suspense,” a middle-aged woman like myself offered. The president of the organization beamed. “I write horror,” a gaunt goth-wraith murmured, eyes downcast. The leader chuckled his approval.

“I’m Kate Sheridan, and I write memoir,” I said.

“Mem-wah?” Mr. President sneered, giving it the French pronunciation. “Such bloated genre.”

There was no un-hearing that comment, the connotation of decay married to excess. It lodged and festered.

Is self-publishing to blame? There do seem to be a surfeit of formulaic addiction memoirs with their requisite burning-bush bottoms, trauma memoirs in which horrific experiences are rendered boring by cliches, cancer memoirs so soporific I find myself rooting for the disease.

In my online dating days, I once agreed to meet a “property manager, wildlife rescuer, and published author” for coffee. Turned out he lived in a shed on his mother’s ranch and rescued feral cats. His book, available on Amazon, was “How Kittens Saved my Life.” OK Stupid, shoot me now….

The best memoirs combine a compelling story with first rate writing, but if I had to choose, I’d take the latter over the former. In my writing class, I’ve witnessed a nuanced, suspenseful piece about washing windows hold us spellbound, while a predictable treatise about bootcamp evoked muffled yawns.

I’m not famous, or even noteworthy. I’m not a dominitrix, don’t have a kid with autism, haven’t served in the Peace Corps (unlike my fellow attendees at a recent workshop). Although I’ve had interesting things happen to me — a childhood in Libya, boarding schools, an abusive marriage, infusions of chemo — I don’t take credit for them. Even things I could brag about — doing farm labor, becoming a woman contractor, getting sober — are not what I want to write about.

What interests me in this genre is the interior landscape. The stories we tell ourselves, and believe, even after they’re proven false. The slippery interplay between perception and cognition. Our attempts to create sense from the senseless, to mine meaning in the meaningless. One’s sensibility.

Now that everyone who’s ever been told “you should write a book about that” can do so, I rarely divulge that I write. Especially, that I write memoir.

“Memoir? Is that like an autobiography? But what have you done?”

I haven’t told my family that I’m writing about them, either. Whenever I’ve sent them a piece, I inevitably hear “But that’s not how it happened!”

“So write your own darn memoir,” I tell them. It’s a bloated genre, after all.

KATE FRICK SHERIDAN, memoirista /writer, reader, plant nut /

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