MFA Nugget: What the Heck is a Postmodern Memoir?

MONTPELIER, VT: I would never miss a lecture by Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Patrick Madden. Like his essays, his lectures provoke curiosity and reflection. And like his essays, he remains frustratingly elusive when it comes to the simple takeaways that so work in a blog summation. But in this lecture on the “postmodern memoir” he was likely adhering to his mentor, the 16th Century French writer Michel de Montaigne. Montaigne gave us the essay, and Patrick pointed out the name “essay” derives from a verb meaning “to attempt or to try.”

Patrick Madden
Patrick Madden

So Patrick attempted or tried to define a postmodern memoir without reaching a dictionary-style summation. Perhaps I will search out his writing on the subject scheduled to be published next year in the Cambridge Companion to Autobiography to learn more. But for the purposes of this post, I’m going to walk through some of the overarching characteristics of a postmodern memoir as described by Patrick and see how they mesh with the memoir I am in the process of revising to completion.

  • A traditional memoir recounts events in narrative order, almost novel-like, while a “highly literary postmodern memoir” builds reflection and self-examination on top of the story, or even exits the “story” entirely, like some literary essays. Okay then. My essay takes place over a six-week period. It progresses in chronological order; heck, the chapter names are things like AUGUST 1: CONNECTICUT and SEPTEMBER 3: COLORADO. And yet. When summarizing six weeks in 300 or so pages you have to be selective. Each detail included then triggers a personal insight, which at times includes a brief semi-flashback to my past. So in that sense it is not unlike Montaigne using the tale of his falling from a horse to reflect on death. (Note Patrick says this is an exceedingly rare technique by Montaigne; you can read more on this in Patrick’s “Essays on the Essay.”) Here I seem to be straddling traditional and postmodern.
  • A traditional memoir ends in triumph, while a postmodern memoirist is self-aware enough to know his ultimate goal is unattainable, but is worth pursuing anyway. My memoir is like many road-trip books–it is in fact a quest–but unlike most such memoirs the narrator is unaware at the beginning of the trip that he is embarking on a quest. At the end he realizes he’s reached a new level of understanding about himself and his past, but also that such knowledge will only take him so far in his future. Here I am fully in the postmodern camp.
  • A traditional memoir highlights dramatic incidents for emotional impact, while a postmodern memoir embraces even mundane events if it can trigger meditation. My drive across the U.S. did not involve scaling glacial mountains in search of snow leopards. I visited artists and interviewed them on camera. That said, I have incorporated some moments of “drama” from my past, but for an understanding of the present narrator, not for sentimental effect. My past does not include incidents of sexual abuse, so past reflections do not have that “victim of this or victim of that” aspect. When I first pursued memoir I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t because so many great ones build on such trauma. But we all have moments in our past that shape us, and in writing about them I shine the brightest examination lamp upon myself. So here again I would view myself as a hybrid, while leaning to the postmodern.
  • A traditional memoir’s text is the story, while a mostmodern memoir recognizes that the text is mere words to be played with in subversive ways. I’m sorry, I’m a former journalist. I think along narrative lines. I won’t be switching to third person to write about myself or making up a future. Here I’m squarely traditional.

On some level it doesn’t really matter whether I or Patrick Madden or you view my memoir as traditional or postmodern. But what will matter to editors, once my literary agent starts circulating my manuscript this fall, is under what subcategory the memoir is catalogued. In my current book proposal–which needs to be updated on many fronts–we describe it as a travel memoir. But there is very little in it that you would find in a “travel memoir” in terms of the sights and sounds of the road. It is less Blue Highways, a brilliant book in which William Least Heat Moon introduces us to communities and topographies, and more Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which much of the journey is exploring the troubled mind of the narrator.

One subgenre label sometimes used in the publishing industry is “literary” memoir. When asked to define literature, Patrick first ducked the question, but finally quoted another writer as saying “literature wants to be immortal.” I am writing this memoir to stand the test of time, like Blue Highways and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Note my memoir chapter titles lack the year. I am stripping out nearly every detail of “modern” technology, cultural influences and news events that could “date” the story. I feel the story I am telling has universal appeal and is not grounded in time, so the book shouldn’t be either.

I’ve written a lot of words here on a book that might never be published, and that won’t be available to my blog readers for some time to come even if it is. But just as a memoirist tells her own story in hoping readers can learn more about theirs, perhaps this post tying Patrick Madden’s reflections on memoir to my own writing will help you answer questions about your own writing. Or I can just tell myself that to justify forcing you to slog through my navel-gazing.

Where would you consider your favorite memoirs to fall in this traditional vs. postmodern separation? And if you’ve written memoirs or are writing one, which of the two seems to speak to your experience?

7 thoughts on “MFA Nugget: What the Heck is a Postmodern Memoir?

  1. Patrick… thanks for putting me onto “Art of the Personal Essay” by P. Lopate, the long introduction to which is sold gold. Now, after reading this post, I am thinking that the traditional memoir deploys a straightforward narrative perhaps because the subject is well known. But who’s interested in the autobiography of an unknown? Therefore we go “postmodern”, in which every step of the journey reflects on every issue from domestic life to nirvana, which is exactly the case with “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I want to share this one note from Lopate’s intro — that the personal (postmodern) essay often finds its voice in self-deprecation. The author admits to all manner of shortcoming, asks questions, especially questions of himself, even questions his own questions. In this way the author brings readers on board, because the whole thing is an examination of human nature. Who isn’t interested in that? Cheers.


    1. PJ, I’ve been regretting not bringing my hard copy of Lopate to this residency; I could have squeezed one more book into my bag. That didn’t keep me from attempting to quote it in workshop the other day, however! So glad you find it of value.

      Thank you for sharing this: “The author admits to all manner of shortcoming, asks questions, especially questions of himself, even questions his own questions.” That is my memoir to a T, and I think the folks who attended my reading would agree with that. And yes, that is essential when people are not buying your book because of the name on it.

      Of course, the famous can go postmodern as well. I found Andre Agassi’s memoir “Open” to be painstakingly raw; I would have been engrossed even if I weren’t a tennis fan who already knew, or thought I knew, his “story.”


  2. Enjoyed this post! I attempted to explain the value of memoirs here:

    Originally I had written this for the memoir I’m now editing, but took it out b/c it didn’t seem to fit. So I guess I’m in the postmodern club. But I did choose to tell my story from beginning to end before launching into any serious reflection. Seems natural.

    At first I was trying to be too clever and the for the sake of clarity, I decided to be straightforward. It’s a deceptively challenging genre.Thanks!


  3. I entered into reading this entry with the hopes of a good laugh, based on the chuckle-worthy title alone, but was surprised to find myself willing to stop after reading exactly what I needed within just the first paragraph.

    ‘the name “essay” derives from a verb meaning “to attempt or to try.”’

    Well, shucks. This is just a brilliantly inspiring thing to know.


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