Writing a memoir is hard work. It is also dangerous, as people who look bad in the book might just track you down to reassert their version of how things unfolded. Families have blown apart; friendships have disintegrated; more importantly, people have been sued. Writers don’t make enough to be fighting court battles with those who object to their characterization in a memoir of childhood where the author seeks revenge against those who bullied and tormented. Writing memoir is hard work because the truth really is stranger than fiction, and a memoir uses fictional techniques to convey memories and reflections, and yes, the history of us. How do we convey a narrative when things do not always end neat and tidy? And, whose version of the truth is, well, true? Could there be multiple versions of truth, like the infamous Rashomon, the epic film of Akira Kurosawa?
Meredith Maran, in her recent book, Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature (Plume, 2016), tries to get to the bottom of why prominent writers run naked through our reading dreams, parading every flaw and personality quirk, every mistake and blemish, all for the good of the art. For the most part, Maran stays out of the way and presents these writers in their own words. Each chapter follows a similar format, a survey of questions regarding the choices and purposes of writing memoir from those who have successfully practiced the craft. Along the way, though, there are few surprises and a definite need for more depth. Some of the writers rise to the occasion while others really offer little in the way of insight, especially in comparison to other forums where the writing process is explored, like the Paris Review interviews.
Some prominent themes did emerge over the course of the book. Many of the writers cautioned against telling everything. In the first draft, go for it and throw everything against the proverbial wall to see what sticks, but in the editing, it is okay to leave things out. I could not help thinking of Joan Didion’s work where she quotes from her psychiatric report or utilizes her migraine headaches, or matter-of-factly announces her pending divorce as a catalyst for a personal essay. She could never be accused of leaving something out and the result is ground-breaking and mesmerizing, inspiring a generation of personal writers using themselves as a laboratory for analysis of the human condition. It is a memoirist’s job to go there, and keep going there, twisting a knife in the self-inflicted wound until its depth and breadth can be fully determined. Only then can sense be made of this random road we travel. We write to discover what events mean and why things happened the way they did, but the truth is illusive and in some cases, not the truth. This is one of the many conundrums of the memoirist.
Another theme that emerges is that memory is porous at best. The idea of truth in memory is subjective. Truth in life might also be subjective, but that is the nature of the beast. The memoir is the writer’s chance to tell her story, the world according to her point of view. No one should apologize for memory. What is to be avoided is revenge, according to several authors in this book. A memoir is not the place to hold a grudge or get back at someone. It is also not a catharsis or a place to vent. That, these writers suggest, is the role of a diary or journal. A memoirist does not grind an ax or seek retribution for past wrongs.
Several of these writers also cite their favorite memoirists. Names that pop up frequently are Anais Nin, the aforementioned Joan Didion, even St. Augustine. It is interesting that no one mentions Montaigne who might be considered the patron saint of memoir or at the very least, a writer who took navel-gazing to a high art. Many of the writers are harder on themselves than other characters in their story. Often, they expose themselves as adulterers, drug addicts, and screw-ups in the service of their art and that works in the realm of a memoir. Pat Conroy’s family picketed his book signings and told customers to save their money. His sister no longer speaks to him. Edwidge Danticat tells us that digging up the dirt of our lives is painful but necessary, and she cites Maya Angelou as a major influence. Meghan Daum always changes names to protect people’s privacy, but finds this practice at odds with her journalism training. A.M. Homes carries the label of a “social arsonist.” In the end, writers rip off the scab and bare their wounds to the world, and that is the only way memoir works.
Writing a memoir means finding what Emerson calls “the common heart,” as Sue Monk Kidd states in her chapter. We are all part of life’s rich cloth, a piece of a larger soul encompassing all of this existence. There is truth and there is life truth. The facts don’t always teach us something; often it is the slanted truth that rings true. This is the enigma of a memoir written well. It is a paradox that the most personal stories are often the most resonant with readers. The art of the memoir has existed since human beings first dipped a sharp object in ink (at one point a mix of blood and earth, sometimes their own, sometimes the beasts they hunted), and began scratching crude symbols to stand for what they feared, what they experienced, what they dreamed. We are our own specimens in the laboratory of a magical world. And the story is king.