in defence of the twenty-something memoirist
‘You’re writing your memoirs? But you’re young, what do you have to write about?’
This is the question I have been facing on a regular basis since I started writing my memoirs as part of my honours degree. Writing my memoirs… It seems strange and a little grandiose to say that. I feel as though people who say ‘I’m writing my memoirs’ should say it while sitting at a large desk in a musty, dimly lit library, perhaps wearing a dressing gown and smoking a pipe. It seems like the type of activity reserved for old, retired military men or aristocratic ladies who moonlighted as spies during the war and had affairs with dashing men—at least that’s the quaint, vaguely Agatha Christie-esque view of memoirists I entertained for a long time. I always thought that memoir writing was something you could only do if you were very old or very extraordinary. Yet here I am: twenty-one, relatively inexperienced and writing my memoirs.
In the world of publishing, non-fiction – specifically memoir – is the form du jour. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in 2008 59% of the books sold in Australia were non-fiction while fiction claimed only 25%. This trend has continued as people’s real life stories continue to litter bookstores: salacious celebrity memoirs, survival stories, tales of grief and death, behind-the-scenes political memoirs, the list goes on. As readers we are hungry for life stories. We want the intimate details and day-to-day minutiae of other peoples’ lives.
And yet I’ve discovered a level of disdain for the young memoirist—the twenty-something writer who wants to find a voice and make sense of their life so far. In 2010, Oprah’s magazine O published some tips for readers. Tip number 8 stated: ‘Ignore memoirs by people who have barely cracked their 30s’. According to Oprah, people under thirty can have nothing worth writing about and certainly nothing that is worth anyone reading.
Plenty of memoirs receive harsh reviews. A lot of the time they are accused of being narcissistic and exhibitionistic. But there seems to be a special critical arsenal reserved for the twenty-something memoirist. Shallow, boring, gratuitously titillating, exploitative, and mundane; these are a few phrases I’ve seen used to review memoirs by young people. Some of the vitriol stems from the idea that the younger generations share too much already. As part of the social media revolution we are connected to millions of people all over the world almost every hour of the day. We can take a photo of our breakfast and send it to hundreds, even thousands of our virtual “friends” within seconds. Every fleeting moment of our lives can be captured and disseminated via social media. It is no wonder some people see us as a generation of over-sharers.
However, the social media trend for sharing is exactly why the twenty-something memoirist should be encouraged. The twenty-something memoirist can offer us a chance to step back from the cacophony of constant status updates, tweets and Instagrams, and delve deeper into the minutiae that constitutes a life.
Critics, like Oprah, might say that a young person doesn’t have enough life experience to write a memoir—their concerns are too superficial and insignificant. But it would be ridiculous to dismiss a writer because of their age or apparent lack of experience. Memoirs allow us to plumb the depths of human experience and make sense of ourselves and of others —age is irrelevant. As Julianne Schultz said: ‘young people have pasts as well’.
What do I have to write about? I’ve been alive for twenty-one years. I’ve lived a pretty ordinary and comfortable middle-class existence. I don’t have any famous relatives or friends and I don’t have a tragic tale of loss or survival to relate. Oprah would advise you to ignore my memoir. But, to adapt an old cliché, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover and you shouldn’t judge a memoirist by their age.
Is twenty-something too young to write a memoir? Would you read a memoir written by a young person?