Image source: Flickr / jeffrey james pacres
In July this year, barely turned 29, I published my memoir, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo, a comic memoir about getting cancer twice that is considerably funnier than it sounds. The month prior, Liam Pieper, age 31, had published his own drug-soaked memoirs, deliciously titled The Feel-Good Hit of the Year. Two months after me, Lorelei Vashti - a comparative veteran at 34 - published Dress, Memory, the story of her twenties told through the dresses she wore. Three writers and between us we can barely get within spitting distance of a single centenarian. Three writers whose slight gasp into adulthood must surely betray our capacity for rigorous self-examination. Three writers, three memoirs and the latest, greatest craze in Australian publishing.
There's always been a lot of critical fulmination surrounding the concept of young memoir. To many outsiders, the publishing industry's tack towards such work smacks of Gen–Y kowtowing and the death of literature as we know it. After all, as we're so often reminded, this is the self-obsessed generation. Pampered youngsters prepped by years of relentless self-esteem building to believe that our banal stories must be shared with the world. Literary ne'er-do-wells without the dedication or capacity to apply themselves to something greater. Pieper himself admits he used to think of memoirists as "writers who were too lazy to go down the coalface of their minds and get on with making stuff up." So conscious of this phenomenon was I that I appended a note to this effect at the end of my own book's introduction:
I should add that I do, on occasion, feel a certain sense of apprehension that I don’t deserve to be writing a book about myself at the undeniably young age of twenty-eight. After all, who am I to tell you about life? What have I achieved? As I see it, all I’ve really done for the past couple of decades is pick up novelty illnesses and vomit a bit. When I expressed this reservation to my housemate a while back, he paused, looked at me for a second and then said, ‘You know, you have had cancer twice. I don’t think people are really going to begrudge you this.’
Fair point. So, here’s my book.
It was a joke, but the kernel of anxiety was there. Why would anyone in their right mind choose to read about the life experiences of someone who'd barely even held down a real job, let alone married or had kids or experienced grinding, impossible loss? How could one even contemplate the weight of such things without decades to reflect upon them? Without the chance to place the innumerable tragedies and joys of existence within the constellation of your own life tapestry?
Yet, here we are. Young memoirs are more numerous than ever. For an increasing number of writers it's becoming the baptismal rite of authorhood – show the world you can write about yourself and then you can write about whatever you desire. I suspect this shift has been driven by two interlinked phenomena: 1) the rise of confessional/"reality" culture; and 2) the diminishment of the publishing industry. In the same way that reality TV has become the darling of network television for its capacity to deliver tremendous audiences at a fractional budget, memoir writing has become the darling of Australian publishing for its capacity to try out untested writers in a low-risk, low-advance environment. No research required when you're regurgitating your own life story, y'know?
All of which makes this sound like an apologia for memoir writing, which it isn't in the slightest. No other form of writing, done well, better serves literature's empathetic drive. Memoir writing, contrary to how it's often presented, is less about presenting your own story as something extraordinary, and more about taking the extraordinary aspects of your story and then finding within that a current of transcendent ordinariness to tie you to the reader. Sure, most people can't relate to the experience of having two tumours by the age of 22, but almost everyone can understand the language of family, anxiety, humour and loss. Good memoir doesn't just describe the strange particularities that warrant you writing a life story in the first place. It unlocks the universal within those particularities and renders the inconceivable real.
This goes to the very heart of storytelling, both fictive and non. Contrary to how it's often positioned, memoir straddles the two, the foundational truth of a story being complemented by the necessary elisions, evasions and reconstructions required by narrative. Back in 2007, when David Sedaris was reaching the peak of his fame, The New Republic dispatched a journalist to check whether all of these fun stories Sedaris was regaling us with were verifiably true, down to the last detail. Of course they weren't, and the steadfastly humourless folk at The New Republic failed to apprehend the difference between documentary and anecdotal storytelling. Memoir should never pretend to be complete truth, and should never even be asked the question. Fiction begins the moment that memory drips on to the page. Truth in essence is all that can ever be demanded.
So, back to young memoir. I believe our anxiety about young memoir stems from a misconception of where the value in writing lies. It's a curiously passionless view of the autobiographical word, in which the only purpose of discussing one's life is for others to profit from some hard fought wisdom gleaned therein. But good young memoir doesn't seek to teach. My first two drafts did that and, as my editor could tell you, they were awful. No, good young memoir simply offers a snapshot of experience to be taken as you desire it: a totem of things to come; a mirror to your present; an artefact of the past. It offers us the quiet assurance that we're all in this together – a token of the examined life, wherein some strand of our shared humanity spools and unravels about our heads as the page reveals a world totally unrecognisable, yet entirely our own.
Luke Ryan is a freelance writer, comedian and man about town. He writes short-form non-fiction with a comic edge and has just released his debut book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo, a comedy memoir about having had cancer a couple of times, out now through Affirm Press.
Join us next Monday for insights from Steph Bowe, whose first book was published when she was 16 years old.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.