I picked up Jill Ker Conway’s memoir The Road From Coorain on vacation last summer. The writer’s name attracted me because some years earlier I’d read her book When Memory Speaks and recalled a quote from that book:
“… we should read feminist memoirs as conscious acts of rebellion.”
When I got home, I pulled When Memory Speaks from my bedside shelf and turned to the only page I’d flagged with a yellow post-it note and read the lines leading up to the quote:
“The mere act of sitting down to write an autobiography broke the code of female respectability, because doing so required a woman to believe that her direct experience, rather than her relationships with others, was what gave meaning to her life.”
The Road From Coorain shows Conway’s rebellion against the path laid out by the Australian bush ethos of the 1950’s, against her mother’s plans for her life, and against the Australian academic culture she strove to grow within. Memoirs and memoir writers like Jill Ker Conway fascinate me with their ability to connect readers to disparate life experiences and bring us into their world which is why, of all literary genres and subgenres, I admire memoir the most.
Writing memoir requires a capacity to reveal yourself, your secrets, your past, your thoughts, and opinions; to honour yourself and your story. Writers must confront the fear of losing others and overcome the need for their approval. We connect with memoir when we see our lives reflected in the writer’s journey. By showing themselves at their most difficult time, memoirists allow us to connect with them, and we’re joined by a shared humanity. They show us that it is okay to be flawed.
I read memoir for that connection – to feel less alone. I read memoir to study how writers take their experiences, sift through them while simultaneously seeming to sort themselves out. I read memoir to learn how writers resist the judgement and beliefs of family and friends and put their backs against the social structures and strictures that stop people from telling their stories. I read memoir for encouragement because I yearn to write a memoir knowing it may alienate family members who object to my version of the family story. Ultimately, I read memoir to applaud – and learn – courage.
→ Susanne Fletcher (she/her) lives in Ottawa. Her short fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in commercial and literary magazines in Canada and the United States. You can find her on Instagram @susannefletcher6; Susanne Fletcher on Facebook. Other work can be read on her former blog at Writing Bites https://wutherornot.