I’ve got this one life I’m trying to understand, and as long as I’m trying to understand it, I imagine I’ll be writing memoirs.”
– Anne Lamott in “Why We Write About Ours Ourselves”
“Why We Write About Ourselves – Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature,” curated and edited by Meredith Maran, caught my eye because the title speaks to the consternation that ominously towers over our shoulders when writing personal stories.
Essays are my favorite genre to read and write, brought to life through descriptions of the humor, passion and emotional turmoil of real people. Revealing our own private moments can be a painstaking process, a choice each writer makes for a variety of reasons. But the other characters in our stories do not typically ask to be showcased in written form. The fear of exposing, offending or harming real-life characters is the harness that can potentially dilute a piece that would otherwise be compelling. The twenty professional memoirists in this book have all faced this conundrum, and they address it in their own way, sometimes successfully and, admittedly, sometimes not so much.
The compilation of authors in this book graciously grant us a peek at the behind-the-scenes truths behind their published works, most of whom express concern and confess remorse about hurting others, often unintentionally. Dani Shapiro advises, “Don’t worry about what people will think as you’re writing a first draft…You’ll have time to worry about people’s feelings once you’ve gotten a draft down.” Some authors methodically give their manuscripts to family and friends to preview and sign off on before the work is published. Some memoirists take the approach that excluding relevant details would undermine the integrity of the story, and so they accept that relationships may be sacrificed. The consensus I see is that of disdain for the inclusion of any writing that is vengeful or nonessential to the story.
I am highlighting many quotes as I read this book, determined to capture the fascinating insights about writing fiction versus nonfiction; essays versus blogs; and diaries versus memoirs. Each section begins with a passage from one of the writer’s published books, and each writer’s collected works are listed, many of which I added to my Amazon wish list with anticipation. This is followed by a narrative, which includes a section on why they write about themselves, how they manage baring themselves and others, and how success has impacted their lives, ending with pearls of wisdom they wish to share with memoir writers.
I sometimes think about writing a memoir in the distant future. I once wrote a brief memoir of a childhood incident and submitted it to Memoirs, Ink. for a writing contest. Although I didn’t win, the feedback was most encouraging. I wrote it decades after the incident occurred. I could relate to A. M. Homes’ comment on writing a memoir “to organize the information and the experience – to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.”
Ayelet Waldman offers permission to keep some things private: “You write honestly, but you’re allowed to keep parts of yourself secret.” She also explained, “The process of writing about myself began in that most prosaic of ways: with a blog.”