Another Case for the Memoir

In case you missed it when it ran at Hothouse, here is my August 16 article:

Scrolling Facebook the other day, as I often do, I came across an announcement from U.K. based magazine MSLEXIA. Editors of the publication announced a spate of upcoming writing workshops inspired to help women begin and develop their own memoirs. Under the comments section of the post a woman exclaimed, “I wouldn’t dare release my memoir!” Deciding not to publish her memoir is a personal decision, of course, and one that I respect, but I couldn’t help being saddened by it. I will never get the opportunity to read about her and add it to my understanding of the human experience. I’m not privy to the details of this woman’s story and there are many, many factors that work together to form a decision to write a memoir but then keep it under wraps. The complexity and ethics that surround telling your own story when others are affected for good or ill are many and labored. The decision to publish should never be made lightly.

But, the decision to write it? That should never be in question.

I was reminded of this when a friend and colleague of mine at the college where I teach gave me a postcard with a cartoon (created in 2005 by Dan Piraro) depicting a young female author signing autographs of her memoir entitled “My Miserable Life.” The young woman is scowling while signing a copy for her parents, who are also scowling and standing over her, apologizing for being bad parents: “Look, we’re sorry,” the punch line of the cartoon goes. “If we had known you were going to be a writer, we’d have been better parents.” My friend said she thought of me when she saw it and bought it. She knows I’m in the process of revising my own memoir. She’s also working on hers. The cartoon is just that, of course, an amusing caricature of the memoir—one that assumes that the genre’s only intent is to allow the writer to complain about her miserable life. It doesn’t assume any transformation in the writer or reader, nor does it assume the complexity inherent in human relationships, particularly when we bump and crash into one other with impunity. It doesn’t assume literary value. It doesn’t assume any redemption for individual or community. The caricature simply depicts a complaint, or, worse yet, a revenge narrative. While I’m sure they exist, I’ve yet to read a revenge-themed memoir. If telling the truth is about revenge then what results isn’t really the truth, and I have my doubts that such memoirs are even publishable.

Sometimes the risks are too great to publish and the souls involved are diminished rather than nourished. Emily Deprang’s decision to relinquish a publishing contract for her memoir about a sour marriage is a fine example, though I have to admit that I again find myself a little sad I cannot add her knowledge and experience to my larger understanding of what it means to be human. I console myself with the article she wrote for Salon, which tells a fair bit about her decision to not publish. The courage she found to write it, but not publish tells me something about the redemptive nature of memoir and the force this genre wields in shaping writers who, even after they’ve written, continue to work toward being the best versions of themselves, knowing that Socrates’ maxim about the unexamined life not being worth living is perhaps the ultimate, practical goal of the genre whether or not the final product is published.

Every spring I teach a class called The Writing Life. It’s intended to reveal the realities of the writer rather than romanticize and sentimentalize what being a writer means. (You can read more of what I think about the dangers of romanticizing the writing life here.)
One of my goals with each class is a robust attempt to inspire courage to write truth not only about their families and experiences, but also about themselves. Last spring when I taught the creative nonfiction/memoir part of the class, the students struggled with the difficulty of revealing themselves and those they love. It’s a struggle I hope each of them take on. If they’re thoughtful and diligent and honest about who they are and who the people in their families are, they will take up the struggle. All of my students have fascinating stories, stories worthy of their very own memoirs, but some of them choose not to write them. I try to encourage them toward courage. Even if the thing is never published, there is soul-quenching value in the writing. It’s in the writing that writers do the work of living an examined life.

I hear many people say that memoir just isn’t for them, to write or to read. I would argue that it ought to be, just as the other literary genres, which speak their own kind of truth about the human experience. To refuse to read (or write) memoir, to me, is like saying that the human experience isn’t very important. As if the truth, individual to each of us, doesn’t make up the sum of who we are. Creative nonfiction and memoir make the literary arts complete. It helps form a body of literary work that tells us something about what it means to be human at this point in our collective history. Each body part has a function, is necessary. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul, in chapter twelve of his first epistle to followers of Jesus in Corinth, seems to say something similar about a body of believers—each person has a function and when that function isn’t performed, the body is handicapped, kept from doing its work entire. But it takes courage to perform that function, from the most shameful parts that we keep covered, like the anus, to the most beautiful parts that we display, like the face, from the lowliest parts, like the heel, to the highest, like the eyes.

Some of the best people I know practice creative nonfiction and memoir. Most of them wouldn’t characterize themselves in this way, and I certainly don’t want to idealize these people, but many of them are wise and thoughtful. Their counsel informs me about what it means to be kind and generous and loving not only to those who are like me but to those with whom I find no common ground. They tend to be like this because they’ve done the hard work of reflection, not only reflecting on how others have treated them, but reflecting on their treatment of others, coming to conclusions that aren’t always flattering, but that are true. As I work on my own memoir, I am in near constant commune with their work, the memoirs and essays they’ve published. They are my spirit guides, friends I turn to when my own courage flags, as it does almost daily. They remind me of the end result. I want to be that sort of person: kind and generous and loving, but also authentic about my failures. Just like my teachers, the memoirists, published or not.