WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) In the Name of Literature
“The thing that was hardest to figure out was how to handle the affairs I had with men who were married,” says Pearl Cleage, a contributor to this volume. But she soon found a way. “Talking about those relationships didn’t make me look so good, but I wanted to talk about my own growth and development as a free woman who consciously committed to telling the truth about all things. No exceptions!” Memoirist Sandra Tsing Loh found another path to the same destination. “The most painful thing for me to write about was when I had an affair and blew up my marriage,” she says. “I tried to write about my affair in a way that made it clear that I was the worst-behaved character, to cast blame on no one other than me.”
There is something deeply satisfying about reading memoirs, even bad ones. It lets me be voyeuristic and judgmental, and if I’m lucky, it offers insights into my own life through the well-told experiences of strangers. But I often wonder about those strangers, about what compels them to bare so much to so many, to reveal their embarrassments and mistakes, and why they so often drag other people — friends, family, lovers — with them. “If you want to ruin your life and/or others’,” explains the volume’s editor, Meredith Maran, “there’s really no more sure-fire method than writing a true-life tale according to you.”
“Why We Write About Ourselves” offers a jumble of answers. They engage in memoir-writing as therapy, these authors say, except they absolutely don’t. They mix elements of fiction writing into their work, except they would never do that. And they go out of their way to avoid hurting other people in their memoirs, except when their memoirs couldn’t exist without other people’s hurt.
I love reading memoirs, but after “Why We Write About Ourselves,” I don’t particularly care for the people writing them.
In some ways, they can’t help themselves. Many have been obsessive diarists since childhood. Kelly Corrigan, a three-time memoirist, describes herself as a “lifelong journal keeper,” while Cleage notes that she started writing in a journal at age 11. Kate Christensen, a novelist and author of the 2013 food memoir “Blue Plate Special,” says she’s been a “self-chronicler” from a very early age. “Looking back on all that journal-keeping, I see it now as a writerly form of finger exercises.”
Memoir isn’t about the urge just to write, of course, but to write about yourself. It’s not any story you’re telling, it’s Your Struggle, a sort of exhibitionist psychotherapy. “I’d been in therapy before,” says Jesmyn Ward, author of the 2013 memoir “Men We Reaped,” about the death of her brother and other young men in her Mississippi home town. “But the therapeutic work I did, writing the memoir, was exactly the kind of work I needed to do.” David Sheff, author of “Beautiful Boy,” about his son’s addiction, says that writing the book “felt like slitting my wrists with a razor. . . . It was also a kind of purging, a way of dealing with years of overwhelming emotion.” Edwidge Danticat, whose 2007 memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying,” describes the death of her father and uncle, says that she doesn’t want readers to “think they’re eavesdropping on my therapy session” but admits that “writing about this whirlwind of events and emotions was the only way I could stay sane.” Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro, meanwhile, believes memoir has the opposite effect. “I’m not a believer in memoir as catharsis,” she explains. “It embeds your story deep inside you.”
When you’re sitting in your shrink’s office, it’s fine to divulge family secrets. But when the reading public is your therapist, there are trade-offs. Here the volume’s memoirists are divided.
“It’s always been the great taboo: hurting your parents, hurting your family, hurting your children,” says Pat Conroy, author of “The Prince of Tides,” “The Great Santini” and three memoirs. But if he didn’t share everything with readers, Conroy decides, “I’d be a liar and an unfit witness for the family I’ve been writing about. . . . When it comes to memoir, I’ll always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what’s written.” One of his sisters suffered, and their relationship was torn apart. “I suffered over that,” he confesses. “I suffer still. When you write memoir, that’s part of the bargain you make with God and the devil.” Similarly, Shapiro’s mother was “devastated” by her daughter’s book. Her mother was a “difficult person,” Shapiro explains, so many people in her life — her dentist, her doorman, her neighbors — started reading the book to understand her better. “I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening,” Shapiro writes, somewhat improbably. “It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”
For others, it is too painful for that. “I won’t write about fatherhood or marriage,” explains Darin Strauss, author of “Half a Life,” in which he recounts killing a girl in a car accident. “I don’t want to hurt my relationships with my wife or my kids.” Cheryl Strayed, author of the blockbuster memoir “Wild,” says that it “isn’t my right to expose people or hurt them or embarrass them,” even though she acknowledges occasionally doing just that.
The trouble is, memoirists often don’t know how even the people quite dear to them will react. “My mother didn’t like the book,” Ward says. “I wrote the memoir as a love letter to our family. She read it as a condemnation.”
Memoirists derive the greatest pleasure from reaching us, readers they’ve never met. “When you tell your story, other people start telling theirs,” Loh explains. “My aspiration as a memoirist is to make the largest possible segment of humanity feel that I’ve addressed part of their story.” Similarly, Ayelet Waldman, author of the 2009 memoir “Bad Mother,” says that “writing a story that changes the way someone sees their life, or just gives them a sense of not being alone in the world, is incredibly satisfying.”
There’s something slightly odd about seeking the praise of strangers at the expense of those closest to you.
As readers, of course, we almost always want a memoirist to offer more, even if we then sit in judgment of their disclosures. Ishmael Beah, author of “A Long Way Gone,” a memoir of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, says that he holds some things back, “the deepest intimacies of my emotions and experiences.” But aren’t those deepest intimacies precisely what we’re after when we pick up a memoir?
One of the best books I read last year was a memoir, full of detailed descriptions, evocative scenes, pinpoint memories, emotions overt and lurking. I loved it — even if I wasn’t sure exactly what to believe. Memoirists don’t carry notepads and cameras with them at all times, waiting to record key moments for future publication (if they do, those lives are the fakest of all). Instead, they mix recollection, reconstruction, constant reinterpretation. “You’re setting out to do work that’s factual but also infused with acts of imagination,” explains memoirist Meghan Daum. “That doesn’t give you license to make stuff up, but it does mean you can use certain flourishes or stylistic techniques that are more common in fiction.” Conroy is less technical. “I’m swimming in dangerous water when I talk about the difference between memoir and fiction,” he admits. “I’ve often intermingled the two.”
We live in a moment of incessant self-disclosure, of oversharing as art, of personal essays as a path to fleeting fame — a cycle, as Daum puts it, “of lazy writers producing material for lazy editors to sell to lazy readers.” So maybe we should be grateful for memoirists, more carefully and deliberately undressing their lives for our benefit.
It’s not an affair, but it can still feel pretty intimate.
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