Good Memoir From A Bad Life

Is it possible to write a really good memoir about a really bad life? In this sense bad means uninteresting or dull, rather than the life of a morally bad person. It is easy to imagine a quite compelling memoir by a serial killer or despot because, although the material may be frequently appalling it is also of interest to many people to find out what the individual’s version of his or her life is and perhaps what their justifications are. It is also a useful exercise to read about how the events of a life fit together and how the subject traces their development into such a despicable member of society. Well, these things interest me. They probably don’t interest everyone. Most people would get something out of the end of such a story, if there is redemption of some kind: if the author claims they are reformed and asks for forgiveness and so on.

The other kind of bad life is the kind where nothing terribly fascinating happened. And it is possible, in my view, to tell a story of this sort well enough to maintain the attention of readers until the end. It has to be done well. Even the most unimportant and anonymous people have had experiences during their lives which could be worth hearing and are probably worth telling if they are told well. This idea is where the popularity of oral histories came from. Not sure how much historians are still compiling these things but there was a big emphasis on having older people answer questions and reminisce into tape recorders. It’s an important process, but as I have written before, what you get from this process is data or evidence or detailed notes and it is not enough to produce a transcript of these interviews and call that a history. That’s like publishing the notes you were making when you were researching a topic rather than writing the essay or dissertation or book which should be based on that research.

And this is the difference. It’s what you do with your notes. It’s the writing. And the writing of the life of a boring person will inevitably have romantic frustrations and ogrish teachers and times when parents just didn’t understand and the frustration of missing out on a good job and elation of getting a decent job of some kind. People generally have achievements and events to be ashamed of. They have been sick and done something athletically impressive and been forced to visit a hospital where a relative was dying. Most people have owned a pet. Not everyone scored the winning try in a game of rugby league or kissed a girl who went on to become a supermodel when they were both in year seven, but experiences occur every day. It just depends whether the individual can identify the features of their story that will make people want to keep reading. But, even if you literally never do anything and never go anywhere and hardly know anyone – for example – then an honest exploration of the boredom and lack of stimulation and the frustration caused, an insight into the emotional and intellectual landscape of such a life, emphasising the imaginative world such a person needs to create to compensate for the lack of real excitement and variety, is a story I would like to read very much.

If it’s written well. And that’s the point. That’s the point about all writing: it has to be good. A multitude of sins may be excused with quality writing. An uninteresting subject may light up for people if only they are encouraged to keep going because they enjoy reading it.

So I think the answer to my question is yes.

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Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 7:26 pm  Leave a Comment  
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