As I plan my Memoir Writing Workshop at Politics and Prose bookstore this November, I’ve been reading memoirs and thinking about their construction and relevance to readers. I continue to believe that the relevance of a memoir lies in the presence of a universal truth with which the reader can connect and a balancing of the ego.
Combining my interest in food and writing, I read Garlic and Sapphires: The secret life of a critic in disguise by Ruth Reichl. Even if I hadn’t heard the author speak a few times at the Key West Literary Seminar this January, I still would have loved it. The narrative is clear and the writing is mesmerizing. Reichl describes her experience working as the food critic for the New York Times. In order to keep some anonymity, she dresses up as characters that were both inventions and people she knew (including her mother!)
The book includes recipes and actual restaurant reviews mixed into the chronological narrative. As a home chef, I’m interested in trying her recipes. As a writer, I’m interested in seeing how she developed a review out of her actual experience. If a reader didn’t care about the recipes or the reviews, she could easily skip over them and still enjoy her own experiences.
When someone decides to write a memoir, the ego can be quite troublesome. It can be difficult to have enough ego to realize that a personal story has merit to an audience. At the same time, it can be necessary to tone down the ego enough to make the story accessible and interesting to an audience.
Many readers are familiar with Ruth Reichl’s work and would naturally be interested in how she came to her reviews. To keep the readers engaged in the book, however, she has to do more than offer a simple biography of an important person (that would be too much ego.) She has to allow us to join her on her journey of self-discovery which occurs as she works as a food critic. There are universal truths that those of us with less illustrious careers can still connect with, understand and learn from as we consider our own life choices.
What role do you think universal truth and ego play in writing a memoir?