Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature offers everything a reader might wish for from twenty diverse and talented memoirists, including some perennial favorites from the memoir genre.
Each author gets their own chapter, which begins with a sample of their writing and a brief and delightful overview of that memoirist’s career and contributions (written by Meredith Maran, the book’s editor). There are also two boxed features: “The Vitals,” with biographical details and fun facts, and “The Collected Works,” which lists the author’s works. The heart of the chapter comes next – the memoirists’ answers to the key question of why they write about themselves, and much more. Each chapter ends with one more boxed feature – the author’s “wisdom for memoir writers.”
The memoirists’ reasons for writing about themselves were sometimes highly idiosyncratic. For example, Ishmael Beah, child soldier and author of A Long Way Gone, said that writing about himself was a way of establishing his existence: “Apart from my passport, I had no physical objects or documentation to do so.” He also wanted to correct misperceptions about his country, Sierra Leone.
For as individual as the reasons the authors gave for writing memoir, all of the authors had one motivation in common: they wanted to write about themselves in ways that would resonate far beyond themselves. Beah, for instance, said the he wanted to “show how everyone is capable of violence if you happen to find yourself in circumstances that propel you toward violence.”
I was most moved by authors who said they wrote the book they wish they could have read when they were struggling. In her teaching, Anne Lamott turns that into a lesson. She tells her students “to write the book they’d like to come upon.” Sandra Tsing Loh said, “Whatever I’ve been through, I want to make it better for someone else.”
Every memoir is a story not just of the person doing the writing, but of other people in their lives — people who are flawed and complicated and human, but who may not appreciate being portrayed in all of their humanity. Each author grapples with this issue, and they come up with very different solutions. Edwidge Danticat worries about what her family will think: “I’d rather have relatives than a book…I try to tell my version, but if others object to it, I tell their versions, too.”
That’s now how A. M. Holmes sees things: “I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to tell the story the way I experienced it.” Pat Conroy explained why he will “always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what’s written” because “If a story is not told, it’s the silence around that untold story that ends up killing people.” And several authors admitted that they often cannot predict how someone they’ve described will react. For instance, Jesmyn Ward said, “I wrote the memoir as a love letter to our family. She [her mother] read it as a condemnation.”
Because the authors in this collection have been so successful, it would be easy to imagine that their literary lives are filled with the affirmation and gratitude of legions of fervent fans. And indeed, many do get lots of love. But their achievements do not shield them from criticism: it still happens and it still hurts. A surprising number of the contributors also experienced intense hostility. Sometimes it came from characters in their books who were incensed by how they were characterized, other times from people who claimed the authors had misrepresented the truth. I was least surprised to learn that the dogs of the internet got unleashed on Ayelet Waldman, author of Bad Mother, who admitted that she loved her husband more than her kids.
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this book for Psych Central is that so many of the writers and readers on the site write about themselves, or enjoy reading people who write about themselves. Yet all of the authors in Why We Write about Ourselves who addressed the issue of blogging and tweeting insist that memoir writing was something different. James McBride (whose chapter includes a wonderful discussion of how writers of color are treated in the publishing industry) says that “memoirists have to speak of deeper things.” It is not just unedited spilling, either, of the sort you might do in your personal journals. As Cheryl Strayed said, “I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation.”
Each of the nuggets of wisdom offered at the end of the chapters is worth taking seriously (even if different authors sometimes offer contradictory advice). Here are some of the tips:
- Kate Christensen: “Memoir writing isn’t therapy – it’s better than therapy. It opens out your life to the world and lets the world in.”
- Pearl Cleage: “Ask yourself the question, Am I prepared to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?…If there are lots of things that are off-limits, try writing fiction instead.”
- Pat Conroy: “Memoirs hurt people. Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?”
- Meghan Daum: “Become an expert at something other than yourself.”
- Nick Flynn: “There are always stories to tell. But to justify a memoir, there has to be a good reason to tell it.”
- Sandra Tsing Loh: “It’s really important to read, and widely.”
- Cheryl Strayed: “The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality.”
- Ayelet Waldman: “If you’re not uncomfortable and scared while you’re writing, you’re not writing close enough to the bone.”
- Jesmyn Ward: “You get the most powerful material when you write toward whatever hurts.”
In addition to the authors I’ve already mentioned, the other memoirists featured in the book were Kelly Corrigan, Dani Shapiro, Sue Monk Kidd, David Sheff, Darin Strauss, and Edmund White. I found them all engaging and learned something from every single one of them.
Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Plume, January 2016
Paperback, 254 pages