“Four hundred vertical feet above, where the summit was still washed in bright sunlight under an immaculate cobalt sky, my compadres dallied to memorialize their arrival at the apex of the planet, unfurling flags and snapping photos, using up precious ticks of the clock. None of them imagined that a horrible ordeal was drawing night. Nobody suspected that by the end of that long day, every minute would matter” (Krakauer, 11).
That’s how Jon Krakauer concludes the first paragraph of Into Thin Air, a memoir about the deadliest day (at the time) in Everest history. Krakauer is honest and direct as he recounts the harrowing journey and avoidable mistakes that resulted in the death of eight climbers in a single day.
Categorized as memoir as genre, Into Thin Air wrestles with when zealous drive becomes reckless ambition, the guilt of survival, and the consequences of living a life of adventure. How does Krakauer use characterization and thematic strategies to tell a story that remains culturally relevant 26 years post-publication? Read on.
Memoir as Genre
Memoirs can be categorized in two ways: memoir as genre, or memoir as a strategy. Memoirs that fall into the memoir as genre category are autobiographical and tell a story over a distinct period of time, typically following a chronological narrative arc. The most successful memoirs as genrehave an exceptional story to tell, a story most people have not experienced or lived, a story like Into Thin Air. (Who can claim they’ve summited Everest and survived the deadliest climbing season of the time?)
At the time of its publication, Into Thin Air was one of the few books available for adrenaline junkies and outdoor enthusiasts who wanted to read about the deadliest day in Everest history. The unknown of the disaster (What exactly happened? Why did two experienced guides die? What happened to the bodies?) and international drama (involving a South African climbing team) kept this event in global news from the start of the climb to months after its conclusion.
Krakauer would release his own story in Outdoor Magazine, unknowingly misinforming readers on certain events, the most notable being the death of New Zealand guide Andy Harris. New information corrected Krakauer’s account and family members of those who died spoke out against Krakauer’s article. Into Thin Air served not only as means to provide a general account of what happened and what went wrong, but also to correct the misinformation Krakauer previously wrote.
Krakauer’s memoir of Everest is one of the most riveting adventure books and remains relevant because of the tragedy that often strikes Everest climbers even years later. Why does Into Thin Airremain as popular today (even when worst tragedies have hit Everest, most notably in 2014 and 2015)?
Because it provides a story relative to the popular discussion about the dangers of Everest’s commercialization. It’s the only book to...
“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around” (King, 101).
Stephen King’s On Writing chronicles King’s life from adolescence to his late fifties. This memoir provides insight to his creative genius, how writing shaped his life, and the hardships faced as an author. While his memoir serves partially as an autobiography, it is also an instructional guide on the craft of writing. In this blog post, we will review the structure King employs in his memoir.
Memoir as a Strategy
Memoir as a writing strategy communicates an overarching message or theme. It’s typically instructive. And these types of memoir tend to be more successful in publication.
On Writing is an instructional memoir on how to write. The purpose of the memoir is to teach the reader how to move from being a competent writer to becoming a good writer. (Spoiler: King’s main advice is that you, as a writer, must put in the effort and hard work to write. Writing isn’t easy. And if you’re not willing to agonize over it, then you’re better off as a competent writer rather than a good one.)
While King’s obvious message is to instruct the reader on the craft of writing, he also argues writing is a necessary part of life. It is an art, and it’s the support-system of life. Writing brings creativity and ingenuity into our world. Without creativity and ingenuity, humans are no better than animals, and life would be dull.
King explores this idea throughout the entirety of his memoir, beginning with his autobiography. He chronicles how he learned the art of writing, and further explains how it became the support-system of his life. Writing led him to his wife who he met at a library and fell in love with during a poetry workshop. He claims, “…what ties us most strongly are the words, the language, and the work of our lives (King, 62). Writing also served as his escape when he abused drugs and alcohol. And when he and his wife struggled with monetary problems, King relied on his writing to scrape by. His stories further served as an escape from reality, i.e., his boss (King, 69).
This theme is enhanced in the second section of the book when King provides writing advice. King claims that the art of writing is a difficult, serious business to learn. He argues, “…if you don’t want to work your ass off, you have no business trying to write well—settle back into competency and be grateful you have even that much to fall back on” (King, 144). If you’re not serious about writing, if you’re not willing to work hard and put in the hours to learn the craft, then you shouldn’t be in business of writing (King, 107).
The Beginning: A Strong Foundation
King splits On Writing into three sections: C.V., On Writing, and On Living: A Postscript. The first section, C.V., contextualizes King’s life, and, as C.V. refers to, demonstrates King’s writing...
Falling Leaves is a memoir that chronicles the life of Chinese-American author and physician Adeline Yen Mah and her coming of age in war-torn, Communist China, a “society that kept girls in emotional chains.” This review discusses the memoir writing techniques Yen Mah employs in Falling Leaves.
Memoir as a Genre
There are two classifications for memoir: memoir as a genre and memoir as strategy. Falling Leaves is a chronological narrative (an autobiography)—also known as memoir as genre.
Many memoirs have been written with China’s 20th-century political and cultural revolutions as the backdrop (Last Boat out of Shanghai, Snow Falling in Spring, and the Cowshed, to name a few). Most focus on the horrors peasants suffered. Adeline’s memoir presents a fresh narrative of an affluent Chinese family; she also explores the clash of the West and East in her household.
Adeline’s memoir focuses on the emotional abuse she endured at the hands of her Eurasian stepmother, and it grapples with how family members upheld and eschewed common Chinese cultural practices. Her grandfather, for instance, is a devout Buddhist who upheld most common Chinese practices, and her great aunt broke traditional cultural norms, such as the practice of binding one’s feet. This memoir sheds light on how Western influence would affect Chinese culture throughout the 20th-century, and how Westernization influence Adeline’s upbringing, education, and how she came to view herself.
The main objective of this memoir is to share Adeline’s horrible abuse, the loneliness of a child blamed for the death of her mother, and her fierce determination to find independence. And while this memoir is classified as memoir as genre, theme plays an important role. For example, Adeline struggles with her devotion to a culture that honors family after suffering abuse and neglect by various family members. Her memoir also contains an overarching message of persevering love.
Adeline’s story is, ultimately, triumphant as she gains her independence, becomes a physician in obstetrics, and finds her own worth in life—through the success of her career, and the family she builds in the United States.
What can we learn from Falling Leaves about memoir writing?
Hook Your Reader—And Hook ‘Em Fast
The prologue to Falling Leaves immediately hooks the reader. It opens with the funeral of Adeline’s father and the reading of his will. It concludes with the shocking news that her father—an affluent and successful businessman—died with no money.
The story—the hook of the entire book—piques the reader’s curiosity. How did Father lose his money? Why did the children obey their stepmother and refuse to peruse the rest of the will? Would Adeline have received a share of the estate if her father still had money?
The answers to these questions are revealed throughout the memoir. And to keep the...