The underlying point of almost any memoir is to illuminate something about the human condition in a way that resonates with readers. You want them to see themselves in your experiences and feel and cry and become indignant along with you. Or you want them to understand on a visceral level how lucky they are, that they have dodged a bullet in their more fortunate life.
Yet not all readers are looking for a powerful emotional reaction when they read—or not all the time at any rate. They want to see themselves, yes, but that can sometimes mean laughing at themselves along with you.
Make no mistake, though. It’s harder to be funny than serious. Humor that hits the mark is a challenge not all writers are equal to.
Perhaps that’s why some of the bestselling funny memoirs are written by famous comedians who have honed their comedic chops through years of standup and gigs on showcases like Saturday Night Live. There’s Bossypants, by Tina Fey, and Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin, and others by Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and of course, David Sedaris—to name only a few. (You’ll find a list of some bestselling ones on Bustle.)
But there are many more people out there who possess the ability to find a funny bone and who are not world-famous media stars. Many are “famous-adjacent,” and with a well-honed platform for humor. Amy Kraus Rosenthal comes to mind. Not exactly unknown, but not a big, famous star. All her works sought the light in life. Even her website provokes a smile for all but the dourest readers. Humor is apparent down to the structure and form of her memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. The subhead on the cover is the first “hint” at the tone of the book:
I have not survived against all odds.
I have not lived to tell.
I have not witnessed the extraordinary.
This is my story.
What this also reveals is that to write a valuable, meaningful, compelling memoir, you don’t have to have the kind of life writers imagine is a prerequisite. Thoughts such as, “My story isn’t so dramatic,” or “My life isn’t interesting compared to others,” or “Who am I to think anyone would want to read about me?” are quickly laid to waste by Rosenthal’s cheeky assertion that her life is, truly, ordinary.
Other qualities that make this memoir so good are its form and its attitude, starting with the “Reader’s Agreement”at the beginning of the book—quickly followed by Rosenthal’s acknowledgments (yes, plural): I would like to thank you for reading this book.
Sadly, Amy died of ovarian cancer in 2017 at the age of 51. Instead of writing an illness memoir, though, she wrote a famous Modern Love essay in the form of a dating profile for her husband, titled “You May Want to Marry my Husband.”Looking for the good things until the very end.
All of this brings me to my inspiration for writing this blog post. I’m currently reading Wendi Aarons’s memoir I’m Wearing Tunics Now: Growing Older, Better, and a Hell of a Lot Louder—and laughing aloud with regularity. Wendi is a humorist and has written for McSweeney’s and the New Yorker, but she’s not a household name.
Her book resonates with me, as an older (ahem) woman, because of the universality of her subject. Only a woman who has lived through the maddening and under-medicated indignities of menopause, the gradual decrease in visibility, the difficulty figuring out what to wear, how to act, and generally how to cope with (thanks to modern medicine) what is increasingly becoming the second half of her life, could have written this book.
Not to mention that Aarons has a true comic gift. That doesn’t mean there’s a laugh on every page—her memoir touches on the serious, and gives a good picture of the highs and lows of her life. But the combination of humor, subject, and overall attitude just makes me, as a reader, feel good.
All this is to say that it’s worth thinking through the effect you want to have on your reader. What do you want them to feel when they’ve finished reading your memoir? Do you want them to pause and let the horror sink in, thanking their lucky stars that they didn’t have to go through all that? Do you want them to feel indignant, angry, ready to join a movement for social justice? Do you want them to feel inspired to make positive changes in their life?
Or do you want to send them into their day with a warm glow and a smile on their face? All of these options are open to you—and many more.
It’s up to you. What great choices to have!