For Amy Poehler, writing her recent memoir “Yes Please” does not appear to have been a pleasant experience. “I am presenting a series of reasons as to why you should lower your expectations, so that you can be blown away by my sneaky insights about life and work,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “I am a grown woman. I know my own tricks!” She goes on at such length about her anxieties that while reading the book, I actually checked: fully 5 percent of “Yes Please” is disclaimers and expressions of anxiety.
“Yes Please” is a perfect example of a problem that has occurred to me frequently in recent weeks. There is a significant market for stories of women’s personal experiences, whether presented as XOJane essays or memoirs by kicky and excellent female comedians. But just because there is a lot of money to be made with such disclosures, or a potential career to be built on them, does not mean that memoir is actually a fit for all women. And sometimes discretion can be both psychologically healthier and make for better writing than baring it all in print.
I admire Poehler’s work, particularly on “Saturday Night Live” and “Parks and Recreation” tremendously, and Leslie Knope, the optimistic civil servant on the latter show, is as close as I have to a fictional analogue. But her obvious discomfort in “Yes Please” made the book not fun to read, with the exception of a section explaining the making of “Parks and Recreation” with an assist from series creator Mike Schur. (The inevitable “Parks” oral history will be both informative and a delight.)
“I usually find any discussion about my own looks to be incredibly boring. I can only imagine what a yawn fest it is for you,” Poehler writes. Later, she suggests that “My twenty years with the Upright Citizens Brigade could fill a book. Hopefully someone else will write it, because writing a book is awful and because most of my memories are drug fueled and rose colored.” Poehler advises against oversharing and explains “I’m not on social media. It’s just not my thing. There is an amount of self-disclosure and self -promotion involved that keeps me away. (Says the woman writing a book about herself.)”
This constant chatter is not just unpleasant to read, but makes it difficult for Poehler to pivot effectively to areas where she feels more comfortable. When a memoirist announces that she is not telling you something specific and personal, and tries to substitute generic advice instead, the advice inevitably suffers by comparison.
“I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal,” Poehler writes in “Yes Please.” “I also don’t like people knowing my s—. I will say a few things. I am proud of how my ex-husband, Will, and I have been taking care of our children; I am beyond grateful he is their father; and I don’t think a ten-year marriage constitutes failure. That being said , getting a divorce really sucks. But as my dear friend and relationship sponsor Louis CK has noted, ‘divorce is always good news because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce.'”
The thing about a passage like this is that Poehler, in attempting to diffuse our curiosity about her divorce, has lit the fuse on a great big Roman candle instead. After finding a sideways means of effectively telling us that her marriage to Arnett was bad, Poehler tries to offer us some soggy, generic divorce advice instead. This is a violation of the rules of both memoirs and truly excellent cocktail parties. And it does not work.
By contrast, when an over-sharer like Lena Dunham draws a veil over some area of her life, the sudden discretion feels less like a broken promise or a diffidence about her chosen form than a revelation all its own. One of the most striking passages in “Not That Kind of Girl” is the one in which Dunham explains why she is not devoting significant space in the book to her good relationship, with the Fun lead guitarist Jack Antonoff.
“I have written all sorts of paragraphs recounting those months together: first kiss, first Mister Softee, first time I noticed that he won’t touch a doorknob without covering his hand with his sweatshirt. I have written sentences about how the first time we made love it felt like dropping my keys on the table after a long trip, and about wearing his sneakers as we ran across the park toward my house, which would someday be our house. About the way he gathered me up after a long terrible day and put me to bed. About the fact that he is my family now,” Dunham explains.
“I wrote it down, found the words that evoked the exact feeling of the edge of the park at 11: 00 P.M. on a hot Tuesday with the man I was starting to love,” she continues.” But surveying those words I realized they are mine. He is mine to protect. There is so much I’ve shared, and so much that’s been crushed by the sharing. I never mourned it, because it never mattered.”
Women fought to insist that the personal is political, that our experiences matter in determining politics and shaping manners and morals. But having offered those experiences up for consumption, it can be hard to say no when people demand more and more of them. And enthusiasm for women’s personal stories can also shade over into the idea that our personal experiences are all we have to offer, when really, Amy Poehler might have been better off and happier writing a book about the impact of improv on American television.
We have fought so hard for women to have what Virginia Woolf described as “a room of one’s own” so that we might have the space and creative independence to write. But the thing about having a room that is truly your own is that sometimes you can choose to close the door and leave other people outside.