Memoir: The Power of Telling the Truth by Jess Wheeler
Growing up, I had very little knowledge of how broad a genre non-fiction truly is. In school, I learned that non-fiction books were travel guides and celebrity biographies. It wasn’t until I took a life writing module at university whilst studying for my Creative Writing and Publishing degree that I began to understand the power behind this genre and the incredible range of writing it covers. My class had a document in which we shared all of our non-fiction recommendations. By the third week of the semester, my to be read list was filled with collections of personal essays and memoirs written by extraordinary people.
Ironically, I had been opposed to reading memoir because I thought the truth was ordinary, boring even, and I was naïve about what I thought these books could offer me.
I have been a long-time lover of fiction. I loved escapism and augmented reality. To me, fiction was limitless with no rules or constraints. When I started to write my own memoir and collections of personal essays, I was taught that there is one core rule, to tell the truth. Whilst it’s a pretty clear rule, it was not always the easiest one to follow. The temptation to elaborate or infer if some of the details were hazy was hard to fight. I quickly learnt about the bravery and gusto that are put into these books. When you pick up a memoir, you put your faith in that author to tell you the truth. However, the author is also putting their faith in you to expose themselves, their thoughts and their actions exactly how they happened. The genre itself tells you, ‘this is all real,’ and we can all bring our biases and judgments to the table.
What I love most about memoir is the perspective it can bring. You have the opportunity to have a glimpse into someone’s life. Within a month, I had read about a woman who coped with her elderly mother’s late diagnosis of autism. A woman who had 17 brushes with death and a girl who tamed a hawk whilst learning to tame her grief. My lecturer’s book, about her relationship with her father, who left her family to join a religious cult was astounding. I was introduced to one of my favourite writers, Lisa Taddeo. She released a best seller titled ‘Three Women.’ This gritty expose on three women’s relationships with themselves, their partners, and their desires captivated me.
Working for Stroud Book Festival this summer as an intern, I’ve designed some of the event graphics as well as completed some writing for them. I’ve been exposed and had access to more incredible memoirs, including The Devil You Know by Dr Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne. This book has opened my eyes in so many ways, casting light on how the lives of offenders led up to their crimes and providing their whole story, not just headlines.
Memoir allows those who don’t have a voice to have one. Ultimately non-fiction and memoirs can bring us all closer together. When I first started writing my own pieces of memoir, I struggled a lot with why someone might want to read about some of the hardships we go through in life. Especially in the age of social media, where everyone is competing to show off their best moments, sharing the more complicated, more challenging times seems counterproductive.
Not all narratives on the human condition are relatable. Still, it’s that connection and empathy that draws us closer and knits us together in the narratives of these books. And broadening your perspective and understanding can give you a whole new appreciation for life.
Memoir at Stroud Book Festival, 3-7 November: