Any memoirist’s dilemma

“A fundamental dilemma for autobiographical essayists is how exactly to navigate between the necessity to write and the sinking realization that it may not really matter to anyone else. All writers, all artists, deal with this problem, of course, especially at this point in time, when via the blogosphere and social media literally millions of autobiographical missives are launched weekly, each voice clamoring for an audience of careful, sympathetic readers.”

I can really relate to this quote from Joe Bonomo’s post “The Silhouette,” on his blog No Such Thing as Was. Recently I read a classic memoir I found tedious (more another time on that book) and am now reading a celebrated one that deals with an extremely dysfunctional family but doesn’t engage me. The writer has “great” stories, because his life was so disordered, but why should anyone else care? Well, there’s morbid interest, surely a lesser value. There’s also the writer’s need to testify and ours to receive. There’s his attempt to render life’s jagged experiences artfully, which appears to be his motive—to make something, as Sartre said, that has been made of him.

And I think this memoirist was motivated by more than sheer ego, as I hope I am, so what gives? (Halfway through the book, I think it’s starting to take off.) Why do some writers draw us into their personal stories without offending us, and how might we do it ourselves? There seems something larger about successful personal writing that transcends mere egoistic display, but this is a slippery thing I don’t understand. I think my own motive in writing a memoir is, at base, to share my experience of love and loss. But ego can creep in.

I remember when I was getting my MFA and giving a reading after I’d been writing hard for a whole year. What I read was personal, the seeds of my current book, but I shared it in a generous spirit: gee whiz, look at this. There was an impersonal quality to my feeling about the writing; I was proud, sure, but had a certain distance; it was clear to me that the work and I were separate entities. Then, a year later, at my reading for my graduation, ego struck. For some reason I was insecure, and my desire was for attention—more for me than for the work, I think; the experience made me feel needy and craven. The writing itself was okay, but my rambling, needless prologue, had I been listening in the audience, would have caused me to grind my teeth, or walk out.

One of the things I learned writing professionally for magazines and newspapers was that the more you work on a piece, the more you see it as an object outside yourself and the less it functions as an ego extension. You feel, at some level, frustrated with a work that’s near completion, especially if it’s good, and  welcome help. All editorial suggestions may not please you, but they can’t offend.

I’m still learning how to use the self in the essay or journalistic piece; since each work is different I always will be. In his environmental journalism, Michael Pollan is really good at making himself a character in order to further the story. (See an earlier post, “Michael Pollan on narrative journalism.”) He says it’s vital to show his evolution, his blundering, his process, in order to avoid the dull journalistic know-it-all voice. Readers surely do crave the personal and also to be on the journey with the writer. This is very subtle, though, and still begs the question of why some deeply personal stories pull me in and others leave me indifferent or repelled. Wish I knew.


Filed under audience, essay-personal, journalism, memoir, NOTED, subjectivity

10 responses to “Any memoirist’s dilemma

  1. I struggle with this as well. When and how much of myself do I include in my writing. I find a piece more engaging when an author includes his own thoughts and feelings, but there are times that are more appropriate than others.

    I’m working on a piece in which I interviewed family members of someone who killed themselves. There’s really no tactful way to work myself into the piece.

  2. Marsha

    Thank you for this articulate and honest assessment of memoir’s dilemma. As a student of the craft and a writer who concentrates mainly on literary nonfiction, I am always looking for that magic ingredient in personal essay that creates what Scott Russell Sanders called “an answering vibration” in the reader. For me, I think it is a hard-to-define blend of honest voice; a willingness to be vulnerable on the page without losing control of the material or hiding a personal agenda; evidence that the experiences described have been thoroughly and deeply considered; a sense of humility that reflects the author’s perspective on relative struggle compared to the rest of humanity; and transcendence. In other words, a knack for sharing the earned wisdom of a particular journey without a shred of bitterness or preaching. A tall order, indeed. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

    • Marsha, thanks. You have really spelled out the dilemma better than I did. But it is a tall, tall order indeed as you list the qualities that you’ve obviously thought a lot about.

  3. survivorscribe

    Thanks for this post. I was just floating through the web today and happened upon your blog. I had the same experience reading for my MFA. It’s true, our egos are funny little characters that like to barge in at inopportune times.

    • Well, mine sure does! I hope the fact that I’m aware of it now helps. Came across this quote that gives me some hope:

      “If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.” J. Krishnamurti

      Hey, I’m TRYING too, so a double whammy there.

  4. Daiva Markelis

    Great post that gets to the heart of memoir. I wrote fiction throughout my troubled twenties, but when I started achieving some clarity about my life–that’s when I switched to memoir. Age has something to do with it–there are many great novels written by writers in their twenties, but not nearly as many great early memoirs. I think perspective is more important in writing a good memoir than is the material itself. Many young writers have the material, but haven’t yet gotten the idea that writing about an aspect of one’s life means stepping away from the limelight in some ways. Novels allow many of these young writers to be heroes of their own lives. Maybe I’m just rambling, Richard.
    It’s good to catch up on your posts on a Sunday morning with a cup of coffee.

  5. Thanks for this perspective, Daiva. I hadn’t thought of it that way, ripening into memoir, but all my favorite memoirs do have quite a bit of time/distance from the action, at least ten years and usually quite a bit more.

  6. Another excellent post–and excellent comments. I have been thinking about ego and memoir also, in a slightly different way, after one commenter on one of my own blog posts lamented that, as a “middle-sized fish in a small pond” (college professor in a small college), he doubts that his life has been exciting enough (conflict filled enough) to write about. Here’s the post in case you want to join in. Would love your thoughts: