Before there was memoir, there was the 80s

There’s always been a few lone wolf memoirs getting published here and there: Maya Angelou’s Caged Bird; Russell Baker’s Growing Up; James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son—and weird, sketchy writing that lives in the DMZ between journalism and memoir (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; the essays of Joan Didion). But mostly, before the mid-90’s the memoir became the exploding genre that it is (I credit Frank McCourt, may he rest in peace), there was the autobiographical novel (my beloved The Bell Jar, On the Road, Fear of Flying, my oh-so-beloved Heartburn).

And then, there was the 80’s. The 80’s are important to me because that’s when I was first dreaming of becoming a writer. Except for the lone-wolf exceptions, we didn’t have memoir in the 80’s. It was a dark time. Very dark. We didn’t have memoir, but we had the Brat Pack. We had Less than Zero; We had Bright Lights, Big City–and most, painfully for me, we had Tama Jamovitz and her damn Slaves of New York. These writers were writing a sort of cinema verite fiction, fiction that read like memoir, but memoirs of a particular class and place, memoirs of everything that I was not.

It was memoir of a big city youth (NYC or LA, it doesn’t matter) a few years out of the Ivy League with characters with plenty of resources, breeding and yummy networking connections to fall back on when the coke ran out. And except for Janowitz, they were male. So Janowitz became the focus of my first real case of writer envy. Like me, she was female and writing about “real” stuff. Unlike me, she had oodles of long hair, a tiny waist and lived a Lower East Side groovy life that people actually wanted to read about.

I loved Slaves of New York and I hated it. Hated it because my life was so impossibly off-center. I spent my growing up years in Canada, for god’s sake. I went to a flippin’ community college, and at that time Slaves hit the bookstores, I was living in the middle of the desert waiting tables in Cajun restaurant. I wasn’t doing the right thing in the right place and never had been. But did that stop me from writing derivative drivel? Sadly, no.

Forgive me. There was no memoir genre, the genre I was born for. I was young. I was of Brat Pack age. Born a few degrees off, I could’ve been Demi Moore in St. Elmo’s Fire. So my first “novel” was written in the voice of Less than Zero. A laconic present tense first person. But are we in LA? Are we with Ivy League drop outs? No, our opening scene finds our narrator in a Cajun restaurant in the middle of desert.

I never finished it. I’m thinking that’s a good thing. I found it the other day and was stunned, stunned, at how bad the writing is (thank god i wasn’t asking anyone for a stamp of approval with that one). But in a way, as bad as it is, I have a kind of love for those wretched chapters. I was a young writer in search of a genre, trying to write memoir in the lonely time before you could write about yourself without pretending to be cooler than you really are.

About Theo Pauline Nestor

Author of Writing Is My Drink (Simon & Schuster) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Learn more about my courses, editing, and coaching at
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2 Responses to Before there was memoir, there was the 80s

  1. This is beautifully written and I loved it.

  2. Pingback: The Triptych: How I Finally Learned to Finish a Piece (and how you might too) | Writing Is My Drink

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