Why We Write About Ourselves: Some of Today’s Most Celebrated Writers on the Art of Telling Personal Stories That Unravel Universal Truth
By Maria Popova
“Oh, let’s not be petty, seeking sincerity in memoirs doesn’t make much sense,” the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska wrote in one of her wonderful prose pieces, adding: “It’s worth asking what version of his self and world the author’s chosen — since there’s always room for choice.”
In another piece, she elaborates:
In his work, every memoirist leaves behind a better or worse likeness of the people he knew, alongside two self-portraits. The first of these two is painted intentionally, while the second is unplanned, accidental. It goes without saying that the first is more flattering than the second, and the second is more faithful than the first. The better the writer, the more attention we should pay to this discrepancy.
But what is it about this polarity of control and surrender that makes the dual self-portrait so alluring and so abiding in its allure? Why are we, both as readers and as writers, so intensely drawn to memoir, from St. Augustine’s Confessions to the Internet’s deluge of personal narratives? Perhaps some of it has to do with our longing, to borrow Joan Didion’s unforgettable words, for keeping “on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.”
But surely there is something more than self-reconciliation, something larger than the ego’s conversation with itself, that impels writers to open their hearts and wounds to strangers, and impels readers to plunge into the open hearts and wounds of strangers.
The enigmatic substance of that something is what editor Meredith Maran explores in Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (public library) — a terrific compendium of insight into the practical craft and philosophical dimensions of how and why the magnetism of memoir works over us and works us over, featuring contributions from such masters of the genre as Dani Shapiro, Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn, Meghan Daum, Pat Conroy, Edmund White, and A.M. Homes.
Novelist, memoirist, and artisan of nuance Dani Shapiro — whose memoir of the creative life, Still Writing, is one of the most vitalizing books I’ve ever read — begins by disabusing us of the common misconception that writing memoir is an act of catharsis:
It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons. Writing memoir has the opposite effect. It embeds your story deep inside you. It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.
Echoing Oliver Sacks’s admonition against the malleability of memory, she adds:
The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memory.
In a sentiment that calls to mind legendary children’s book editor Ursula Nordstrom’s assertion that “a penalty of the creative artist [is] wanting to make order out of chaos,” Shapiro writes:
One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so they make more sense. It’s a supreme act of control to understand a life as a story that resonates with others. It’s not a diary. It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it, attempting to make art out of it. When you’re a writer, what else is there to do?
It’s like stitching together a quilt, creating order that isn’t chronological order — it’s emotional, psychological order.
That emotional and psychological dimension, Shapiro suggests, is the very fabric of the creative life — and it is indivisible from even the most mundane aspects of an artist’s life. (Amanda Palmer addressed this in her spectacular BBC open letter about the choice to become a mother as a working artist.) In a necessary counterpoint to the tyrannical notion of “work/life balance,” Shapiro observes:
More and more I feel there’s no contradiction and no delineation between my domestic life and my creative life. One can’t exist without the other. There is this life and there is this driving need to dive into that place that then expands, and that world is as large and encompassing when I’m inside it as the world that’s all around me.
In accordance with the anthology’s format of ending each contribution with a concentrated dose of essential advice to aspiring memoirists, Shapiro offers:
Know your reasons for embarking on this memoir. If one of your reasons is revenge, stop. Wait. Writing from rage, or from the sting of betrayal, or whatever it might be that is motivating you, will produce an incoherent story. Be sure you have enough distance from your material so that you are able to think of yourself as a character.
Remember that you’re telling a story. Not everything belongs… Just because it happened to you does not make it relevant. Choose carefully what to put in and what to leave out.
There’s a great amount of power present in reading something where the writer is standing right there behind the sentences, saying, “This is true.”
In a refreshing refusal to indulge the false humility behind which we all too often hide the vulnerable zeal of our creative egos, Strayed considers the impetus that animates her — the impetus, one might argue, that animates every true artist:
I aspire to greatness. I want to write literature that moves people, that looks them in the eye and reaches into their guts. My biggest worry is fulfilling the mission of literature, which is to tell us what it means to be human… I’m fueled by the desire to give beauty and truth to the world via the sentences I construct. I really want that in this deep, core, essential way. There’s an ache inside me that’s soothed only by writing.
I’m not talking about confession. I’m talking about necessity, about telling the deepest truth at the right moment and being in command of that.
My work doesn’t hinge on shock value. I tell only what needs to be told for the work to reach its full potential. I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation.
Echoing her previous observation that “when you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice,” she counsels aspiring writers:
The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be original in your writing — you are the only one who can write that universal experience in just that way. Trust that.
Good writing is built on craft and heart… You must do your work and it must cost you everything to do it.
Anne Lamott, who writes with uncommon grace and generosity of spirit about such messy subjects as grief, friendship, how we keep ourselves small by people-pleasing, and what gives us meaning in a seemingly meaningless world, sees memoir as a private act of public service:
I write memoirs because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help. I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be. It’s sort of a missionary thing, to describe one person’s interior, and to say we’re probably raised not to think this or say it, but actually all of us feel it and have gone through it, and we all struggle with it. I feel like it’s a gift I have to offer to people, to say, “This is what it’s like for me, who you seem to like or trust. We’re all like this. We’re all ruined. We’re all loved. We all feel like victims, we all feel better than.”
There’s no shame in that. Anybody you’d ever want to be friends with has had a tremendous amount of wounding in their past.
Meghan Daum, who has written beautifully about how we become who we are and who describes herself as “a personal essayist more than a memoirist,” examines the delicate art of heeding the line between intimacy and oversharing:
To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.
It’s an invitation. The writer is saying to the reader, “Come along with me while I tell you a few things and explore a few ideas.” The writer is saying, “Come a little closer and I’ll confide in you about a few things.”
The hope is those confidences will inspire the reader to unearth some of his own feelings or insights. None of this has to do with spilling your guts or handing your whole, unedited and unprocessed life story over to the reader to digest. That’s just bad manners, bad hostessing. When you write about yourself — actually, when you write about anything — the goal is to offer up just the right ingredients in just the right portions. You’re not dumping out the contents of the pantry. You’re serving up a finished meal.
In her advice to writers, Daum takes a page out of John Steinbeck’s book and offers a kind of meta-disclaimer:
Take most advice with a grain of salt, including mine. In literature, as in life, most advice says more about the giver than the receiver. So always consider the source. And if they’re good ones, don’t forget to thank them in your acknowledgments.
For A.M. Homes, writing memoir springs from “the impulse to organize the information and the experience — to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.” But the very construction of the container may require the violent shattering of a Pandora’s box. Looking back on the experience of writing The Mistress’s Daughter — her exquisitely disconcerting memoir of meeting her biological parents thirty years after they had given her up for adoption at birth — she reflects:
I wasn’t who I thought I was, and yet I didn’t know who I was. It was interesting to realize how fragile your identity is. Even when you’re thirty-something years old, and you’ve written a bunch of books, and you think you know who you are, the reveal of a piece of information, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative, can yank it all out from under you.
Since publishing the memoir, the biggest personal shift is that I now feel a greater sense of legitimacy. I feel I have the right to be alive, the right to exist. I felt very peripheral as a kid; it was an uncomfortable way to live.
One of the primary qualities great memoirs share, and a centripetal force of the magnetism that draws us to them, is this craftsmanship of legitimacy — the act of conferring dignity and validity upon the experiences of strangers via the writer’s own private experience. Homes speaks to this beautifully:
Writing my memoir was unpleasant, like being a doctor examining myself: Does it hurt here? Which part hurts the most? Oops! I made you bleed again.
There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop.
What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer — finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for their adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.
But although memoir’s form is molded of the deeply personal, its substance is animated by the universality of the creative impulse — something Homes captures with electrifying exactitude:
Making art is all about humans and our psychology: who we are, how we behave, what we do with the hand we’ve been dealt. It’s closer to your own bone when it’s a memoir, but the bone is still the bone.
Complement Why We Write About Ourselves with master-memoirist Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Maran’s previous anthology, the marvelous Why We Write — a compendium of twenty celebrated writers’ reflections on why they do what they do and an excellent addition to this evolving archive of timeless advice on the craft.
Published January 27, 2016