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Memoirs: The Yin to Twitter’s Yang

Franz Wisner, author and founder of Story-Driven Ink — a new online writing workshop — on why he’s bullish on the future of the memoir.

Editorial by Franz Wisner

Franz Wisner

Franz Wisner

I just returned from a funeral, one in a long string. This one mirrored the others — a bunch of somber-faced mourners, huddled in a room, cradling fermented beverages, mourning the death of our beloved.

Oh, memoirs. Our babies. Our pasts. We’re so sad to see you go.

Well, maybe I had one too many libations at the wake, but this time I walked away with a smile. The longer I heard the laments, the better I felt about the future of the memoir genre. If it’s a stock, I’m buying. Here’s why.

Start with the obvious. As with other genres, prices will come down and access will continue to rise as the publishing model decentralizes. In the long run, that’s a good thing. Memoirists will find larger and larger audiences as we tap into new methods of delivery — cell phones, e-readers, even inexpensive and flexible devices we can carry around in our pockets like a borrowed paperback.

When we talk about access, we usually mean domestic access. But think global. Imagine the day when every village has access to portable readers. Even in the poorest stretches of the planet and in countries that erect barriers to information. Imagine the impact of an Ishmael Beah or a Aung San Suu Kyi when everyone in their respective countries can read or hear their life stories.

At the same time, future memoirs will also face more scrutiny and fact checking. Don’t trust what Dan Perkins wrote in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man? Memoirs will soon include access to third-party sources to gather information for yourself. Many readers already do that, firing up computers after finishing books. The functions will soon be combined. Memoirists will be the better for it.

Future memoirs will be bolstered with multimedia offerings and interactive features. Memoirs are tailor made for this. Some authors balk at the trend, feeling the images take away from the words. This isn’t an either-or debate. My solution has long been to separate the two, allowing readers who long for additional information to access it readily and purists to leave it alone.

My 10-year-old son recently started playing the guitar. Along with traditional lessons, he’s learning to play through custom videos on Apple’s Garage Band. Sting taught him the chords for Roxanne the other day.

“What if Joan Didion showed him how to construct a sentence?” I thought as I stood behind him. “Or Augusten Burroughs taught him how to see humor in the absurd?” I’m sure there’s an app in the making.

Reader communications also have me heartened. Often I’ll finish a section of a book and think, “Great writing. I wish I could tell the author she nailed it.” Future memoirs will have the ability to do just that.

We’re also going to spend our time reading better memoirs, honing our reading lists down to memoirs likely to suit our tastes. Book tastes are subjective. That’s why review and recommendation components will need to be highly personalized, relying on the suggestions of friends, writers, critics and anyone whose opinions you value.

Equally important, the memoir genre will continue to widen from the usual suspects — celebrities and politicians, media personalities with large followings, New Yorkers and writing school graduates savvy enough to carve out a publishing deal. More access means more writers from all backgrounds, story lines outside the standard fare, fresh voices, creative approaches, a breath of energy and optimism to keep our genre vibrant.

Why else am I bullish on memoirs? Social media. I am not critic of social media, though I believe in the rush toward the instant and the intimate we’ve left something vital behind: our core stories. We’re awash in the information of now, ignoring our pasts and our futures. The problem is you can’t have one without the other. What’s the meaning and value of snapshot information without a deeper context?

Memoirs are the yin to Twitter’s yang. They fill an enormous need today, increasingly so tomorrow. The more tidbits we hear, the more we crave the whole story. Social media won’t squash memoirs; it will fuel their necessity and desirability.

Not just any memoirs. An overlooked benefit of social media is that it’s forcing memoirs to be more intimate, more current, more revealing, more real. It’s pushing us to be better memoirists, frankly. Readers have increased their demands for intimacy and detail and words that “wow!”

I loved Andre Agassi’s memoir Open, co-written with memoirist J.R. Moehringer. I’m not a tennis fan, and only knew Agassi through ESPN highlights and paparazzi shots. His Facebook and Twitter pages are filled with one-line salutations and snippets from his life. They didn’t make me emotionally invested in the man. I thought he was a jerk.

Then I read Open, and everything changed. My heart felt for him as he opened up about his love-hate relationships with his overbearing father and the game that dominated his life. His memoir allowed me in. Long after Agassi’s playing days ended, I became his fan.

Open is an excellent example of a memoir that takes the best of several sub-genres and comes up with a hybrid of its own. It has the literary feel of a novelist’s life story, the honesty of an addiction tell-all, the competitive lure of an athletic drama. It offers a new path for sports memoirs, and inspires the rest of the genre to challenge and innovate and improve.

It is also but a peek into the bright future of memoirs. Funerals be damned.

Franz Wisner is the bestselling author of Honeymoon with My Brother and the founder of recently launched, Story-Driven Ink, an online workshop that assists writers working on memoirs.

DISCUSS: Could social media replace some books?

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4 Comments

  1. Posted December 10, 2010 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    When I think of the purposes served by Twitter and memoir, I see the yin and the yang aspect. We read memoir seeking the personal and the intimate, hoping to find in another person that which we are looking for in ourselves. Twitter is the collective. It gives us the sense that we are part of a community. Two needs…the individual and the whole.

  2. Posted December 10, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Social media is user-generated media…and perfect for creating and promoting memoirs! Case in point: The Miracle in July. MIJ is an ambitious, long-term storytelling experiment with many goals, one of which is to explore ways to use media uploaded to social media websites to tell stories. Check out this chapter (roll over links with icons and play the music) to see what I mean: http://themiracleinjuly.com/story/2010/04/19/24-memories-in-a-life/

    Anyone else doing something similar to this with social media?

  3. Posted December 12, 2010 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    The Internet is turning us into shallow creatures. Convinced we can multi-task and jump from fragmented story to fragmented sentence to fragmented thought, at hundreds of clicks a minute, we might be in danger of losing what it means to be human.

    I think that an increasing amount of people, and the younger generation of digital natives in particular, do not care about the deeper context. They have grown up in a world of hyperlinked instant gratification, and to read someone’s memoirs in a traditional sense is not in the realm of possibility for many. Attention spans just aren’t what they used to be.

    Why spend days or even weeks reading one person’s 400 pages of memoirs when you could read 400 people’s tweets in an hour?

    There will always be some people who crave the whole story after reading some tidbits. However, as we become more firmly entrenched in the digital age, I think that those who prefer to solely read the tidbits will come to dominate those who crave the whole story.

  4. Posted December 13, 2010 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I recently discovered my love for memoirs, ironically occurring around the same time I found mysefl more engaged in social media. Coincidence? I think not. These days, I have no interest in any other genre. I’m drawn to the ones written by everyday people with extraordinary lives. Not so much the celebrity’s “let me tell you my version of the story” types, but the ones that remarkable “nobodys” write for the rest of us.

    I’ve been devouring Mary Karr, and am hopeless in knowing that she’s written only 3 memoirs. I could use a few more stories from Karr… Nobody writes like her.

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