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Memoir: Show AND Tell (an interview with Patricia Hampl)

June 6, 2009

Tags: memoir, patricia hampl

"I think that the reason memoir is a dynamic form today is not because we happen to be a tell-all society," Patricia Hampl said in an interview in 2004. "What I think really has given torque to the genre, has made universities suddenly make room for this genre has to do with...this thing called a story, a narrative that has got that 'Then what?' and 'Oh thatís an interesting character.' Itís got all that stuff we connect with fiction, which is then interrupted or connected to a need to talk about the material.

"The big fiction advice is 'Show, donít tell,' but this is not what memoirists are embroidering on their pillows and sleeping on. Itís instead 'Show and Tell.' Itís the idea that you can't tell unless you can show, but you donít just show. You have to talk about it. You have to somehow reflect upon it. You have to track or respond to it, this thing thatís happening. And in the intersection of these two things is the excitement we feel about this genre. Too much show and 'Why arenít you writing fiction?' Too much tell and 'Iím not going to listen to you because youíre boring.' The narration is the thing that lets you do the other."

That passage is from "We Were Such a GenerationĒóMemoir, Truthfulness, and History: An Interview with Patricia Hampl" (interviewers Shelle Barton, Sheyene Foster Heller, and Jennifer Henderson) published in River Teeth (Spring 2004: 129-142). Click here to read the whole interview, for which I found this PDF file online at this URL:

Patricia Hampl is the author of a book on the topic of memoir: I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, among other titles.


  1. June 17, 2009 3:31 PM EDT
    Yes, show AND tell! Hampl makes a great point here about memoir writing that I hadn't seen expressed this way before. You can bet I'll share it with others. Thanks, Pat.

    Dawn Thurston
    - Anonymous