Memoirs used to be something you’d write at the end of your life. You’d hole up with old photographs and dusty memories and attempt, once and for all, to set the record straight. Because if you were writing a memoir, you were the kind of person who was already in the public record: a geriatric novelist, an ex-governor, a wrinkled Broadway star. Writing a memoir was a two-step process. Step 1: Live a long time, and accomplish remarkable things. Step 2: Just before you die, write about how you accomplished those remarkable things.
Recently Opium magazine announced the finalists in its “500-Word Memoir Contest.” I can only guess at the typical age of the finalists, but one of the entries— “From 26 to 32, the Only Years that Matter”—gives an indication. Like Opium’s readership, they’re young. And except for one name, which I recognize because the writer is also a literary blogger and a self-published novelist, I don’t see any finalists who have accomplished something terribly remarkable.
The Opium contest is similar to the “Six-Word Memoirs®” project at SMITH Magazine. (Yes, they copyrighted it.) Everyone is encouraged to write a six-word memoir and send it to SMITH Magazine for publication on their web site, or, if the six words are truly amazing, in a printed book. Recent examples from the web site include “i’m sorry i stole your soulmate” and “Asked to join Facebook, then ‘unfriended.’” You can write a six-word memoir about anything. SMITH Magazine has published, or plans to publish, collections of six-word memoirs organized by theme, including “Love & Heartbreak,” “The Green Life,” “Momoirs” (for moms), “The Food Life,” “America,” and my personal favorite, memoirs “For Teens.” Not only can you write a memoir in six words before you turn 20; you can also assign your life’s summary to a thematic category.
It’s worth noting that both of these projects are based on brevity. The limits they impose are intended to motivate participants (because the participants need external motivation to write) to think within the confines of what is basically a homework assignment.
We realize that literary forms change. The memoir was one thing when Ulysses S. Grant wrote his, and it’s a different thing now. We also realize that literature is, and should be, inclusive of as many people as possible, both as readers and writers. And we admit to having heard the proverb about brevity and the soul of wit (although we hardly think wit is the primary factor in the construction of good autobiographical prose). We are also well aware of the trend, in recent years, toward addiction memoirs, coming-of-age memoirs, and the memoir as an exploration of a particular lifestyle. Fine.
But the six-word memoirs at SMITH Magazine, and the 500-word memoirs at Opium, have more in common with the “About me” paragraph on a MySpace page than with the literary form of the memoir. Both are almost exclusively the domain of young people; both can be updated, repeated, and revised; both have imposed limits that feel like a classroom handout; both are used primarily by non-writers.
We dislike these instant memoirs because they are not long enough to be confessional or revelatory; because nobody is more than pruriently interested in the confessions of an unremarkable stranger, and because the internet makes these writers too self-conscious to be both honest and objective. The amount of contrivance that goes into an instant memoir brings it more in line with fiction than autobiography, and yet it’s a terrible kind of fiction, designed to make the writer sound witty, and to make a cynical reader chuckle, briefly. Instant memoirs do not set the record straight.
The Fiction Advocate would like to remind everyone that you’re better than this. Your life takes more than six words, or 500 words, to describe. And like your father always said, if you really want to accomplish something, put your back into it and get down to work.
(Photo, of Ulysses S. Grant writing his memoirs, is public domain.)