Writing Memoir: Self-Revelation

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“ What compels the writer of memoir to bare her soul to unknown readers. Or does she, really? Is the process of strategy and selection in the nature of a matador’s cloak?” This question was asked by Tom Gregg in a recent response to one of my posts.

An excellent question — what does compel us memoirists to share our stories with strangers? And is the self we share our real self, or a mask?

Another, related question, is whether memoirists have any responsibility to communicate some purpose or wisdom through their writing.

Judith Barrington, in her book Writing the Memoir, claims that memoirists have a responsibility to pursue meaning:

“If the charm of memoir is that we, the readers, see the author struggling to understand her past, then we must also see the author trying out opinions she may later shoot down, only to try out others as she takes a position about the meaning of her story. The memoirist need not necessarily know what she thinks about her subject but she must be trying to find out; she may never arrive at a definitive verdict, but she must be willing to share her intellectual and emotional quest for answers. Without this attempt to make a judgment, the voice lacks interest, the stories, becalmed in the doldrums of neutrality, become neither fiction nor memoir, and the reader loses respect for the writer who claims the privilege of being the hero in her own story without meeting her responsibility to pursue meaning. Self revelation without analysis or understanding becomes merely an embarrassment to both reader and writer.”

In some memoirs, the writer’s purpose is clear, as is the meaning he is pursuing. Stephen King could have written a memoir about growing up in Maine, or about getting sober. But instead, he wrote a memoir about his writing life. His purpose, I think, was to inspire new writers and to help them become better writers.

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“Two people holding up an old map with directions and X marks drawn with a marker” by N. on Unsplash

Many recovery memoirs — no matter what the author is recovering from — are written to provide other people with a road map: these are the steps I followed, this is what worked for me. My first memoir, Walk Away, is about recovering from family and intimate partner violence. And I did intend it, in part, as a road map for other people who’d suffered violence at the hands of those they loved.

But because both types of violence have been deep dark secrets, I also wanted to bring those secrets out into the light. Brutality flourishes in silence and darkness, as we’ve all learned recently from the #MeToo movement. Bringing the stories out into the light can give courage to others and, perhaps, even prevent future brutalities.

Writing a memoir can also be an integral part of the process of recovery from loss or trauma. The task of writing focuses us on organizing our memories and that can help us to make sense of what happened.

The author Diana Raab wrote an article for Psychology Today in answer to the question “Why should you write your memoir?” She details a number of reasons why people might want to do so:

The memoirists whom I interviewed for my research claimed they had a story to tell and felt they were the only ones who could tell it. Others might have secrets to share, or maybe they want to study or understand certain situations. Additional reasons to write a memoir include preserving a family’s legacy, learning more about one’s ancestors, a search for personal identity, gaining insight into the past, or healing from a traumatic experience. Writer André Aciman believes that people write memoirs because they want a second chance to create another version of their lives.

But I think Tom’s question is more about what compels people to reveal themselves to others.

That, to me, seems a matter of temperament, or maybe even genetics. For some people, diet soda tastes bitter and nasty; for others, it tastes sweet. When I used to teach college writing classes, I always mentioned that different people have different levels of comfort when it comes to self-revelation — not a good or bad difference, just a difference. And like all differences, it needs to be respected.

My best friend (since we were six years old!) is a naturally reserved person. She would no more write a memoir than I would volunteer at a pre-school (the noise!). She’s not comfortable revealing personal details to strangers. Although we’re both introverts, when I meet new people, I’m very open about my checkered past.

Even in casual conversation, telling our stories can be a road map for others in big or small ways. As a teacher, I always revealed that I was a high school dropout, and one reason I did that was to reassure anyone in the class who might have struggled in high school, to tell them in a private way that high school dropouts can become anything, even college professors.

Are the selves in essays and memoirs the writers’ “real” selves? I’d say no. Writing is an art, and while art imitates life, it’s not the same thing. The memoir and essay forms provide us with a scaffolding on which to build stories and meaning.

The scaffolding becomes a part of the voice, and that voice, that self becomes different from the self that meets a friend for coffee. Not a good or bad difference, or even less true. Just a difference. And like all differences, the distinction between the day-to-day self and the self that appears in writing needs to be respected.

Why do you write memoir, or poetry? Why do you reveal your secrets? Or why do you keep them to yourself? Are you the same person on the page as you are in your dreams? I would love to know. And Tom probably would, too.

Writing Memoir: Raising the Stakes

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Memoirs are already written in stone because they are about “what really happened,” right?

Wrong. “What really happened” can be written about in an infinite number of ways.

Art is all about selection, or framing. Think of photography. The photographer selects or frames the view. And by doing so, they deselect other views.

As a memoirist, you are not obligated to present all the views or all the scenes. You are in charge of selection.

And, you have control over how you arrange, and rearrange, the scenes you do select.

If you want your readers to keep reading, you can select and arrange for suspense once you know what is at stake, and how you can raise the stakes through the organization of your story.

I’ve quoted writer Chuck Wendig before. In his craft book Damn Fine Story, Chuck tells us:

The stakes of the story are that which can be won, lost, or otherwise protected. What can be won arguably amounts to the character solving the problem. What would be lost is that the character has failed to solve the problem and must reap the harvest of his failure.:

What are the challenges you are writing about in your memoir? What are you trying to win, or trying not to lose? Are you writing about recovering from an injury or disease in spite of the odds stacked against you, or about succeeding as an artist, a parent, a worker in spite of the roadblocks thrown in your path, or about finding peace or wisdom or identity in spite of your own stubbornness?

It’s the “in spite of” parts that can help you raise the stakes in your memoir manuscript. Consider pacing the memoir so that the odds, the roadblocks, the stubbornness, and other complications appear one at a time. Each time you reveal one of these challenges, you raise the stakes.

You raise the stakes, too, when you reveal what you have to gain on your quest in a piece by piece way. That’s usually how life goes — we start off looking for one thing, thinking there’s one obstacle to overcome, and we end up finding out that there are other things we need to fulfill our quest, other barriers to jump over, other fences to climb.

“Macro view of an urban person’s hand on a chain link fence in De Nieuwe Stad” by Mitchel Lensink on Unsplash

For example, I wanted to go to law school because I wanted to represent people who were caught in the criminal justice system. One obstacle in my way was that I was a high school dropout. I got to law school, but then drugging and drinking became another potential obstacle. In law school, I started to see how having power as a lawyer could help me heal from my own past abuse. But then, it became clear I wasn’t going to get a job because my grades were bad and I didn’t have connections. So I started my own practice. But then, I ended up representing . . . And so on.

As mentioned in a previous post, you, and the other significant people in your memoir, are characters, and in any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know:

  • who you are when the story begins,
  • who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and
  • who you are when the story ends.

Raising the stakes means keeping the reader’s attention by revealing goals and obstacles through pacing. How does your quest change with the knowledge you gain from overcoming obstacles? What are the stakes at the beginning of your quest, in the middle, at the end?

The quest you want to write about may have already happened, but you control how that story is told. You select which stakes to reveal, and when.

Write on.

Writing Memoir: The Heroic Archetype

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You can be the hero of your own memoir. Maybe you already are.

Joseph Campbell, and other analysts of the hero’s journey, tell us that the hero’s job is to accept a quest, go on a journey, and return with something of value to his or her community.

Often, the hero resists the call to action initially. And often, some taboo is broken in the process.

Bonus points, by the way, if you grew up with one or more substitute parents: adoptive parents, step parents, foster parents. Being raised in a single parent home counts too.

All the best heroes in all of our stories share the substitute parent trope. Think Moses, Jesus, Luke Skywalker, Superman, Batman and Robin and Batgirl, Jane Eyre, and Frodo. All the Marvel characters I can think of. All the young characters in The Force Awakens. And then there’s Harry Potter.

By “best” I don’t mean “nicest.” Think Oedipus, Heathcliff, Darth Vader, Hellboy, Dexter, Loki.

Maybe this trope exists because it’s easier to break taboos, to rebel against a script written by your substitute parents, than it is to break away from a script written by your true and loving parents. And rebellion makes for such an interesting story.

But you don’t need to have substitute parents to be the hero of your own memoir. All you need is a journey and a few monsters to overcome, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Ulysses in The Odyssey.

Photo by Andrew Dong on Unsplash

The hero’s journey can be external or internal. The most interesting are perhaps both internal and external.

Some recent memoirs that align with the heroic journey archetype are Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Jill Bolte Taylor’s My Stroke of Insight, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.

Similarly, the monsters or obstacles can be internal or external. The late Caroline Knapp’s memoir of recovery from alcoholism, Drinking: A Love Story, is an eloquent inner journey about dealing with internal monsters.

At the end of the heroic journey, the hero comes home — but that can be an internal home. Or it can be a new home if the original home has been blown up, or the story doesn’t take the hero back to his or her original home for another reason.

If you’re looking for a pattern of organization for your memoir, studying the structure of the heroic archetype through careful attention to one or more of your favorite heroic tales might be a fruitful exercise. And, of course, you can Google “Heroic archetype” for much more information.

Meanwhile, here are some writing prompts to help you identify elements of your own heroic memoir:

  • What forces or ideas did you rebel against?
  • What internal or external journeys are part of your story?
  • What thresholds did you cross to begin the journey?
  • What monsters did you face?
  • What barriers did you overcome?
  • Who were your mentors, guides, or allies?
  • What did home look like when you completed your journey?

Write on.

Writing Memoir: Libel and Slander

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Memoirists sometimes worry about being sued for libel or slander or defamation.

Here’s the good news: you can’t be sued for what you’ve written until you make your work public. You can’t be sued for writing you keep in your notebook or on your laptop. And writing and publishing are two very separate enterprises.

 

Don’t even think about being sued while writing and revising. Wipe those thoughts from your mind.

Remember that no one sees what you are writing until you take the next step: publication in print or other media, or in a public reading. And this step doesn’t happen by accident or by itself. It comes after the writing, sometimes long after.

So that’s the simple answer to how to write a memoir if you’re worried about being sued: by recognizing that writing and publishing are separate. You can write about love and terror and tenderness and violence. You can blame people, and write bad things about them. No one is seeing it while you’re writing it. Write your best. Don’t worry.

What makes a piece of writing likely to be the subject of a lawsuit for libel or slander or defamation? Wait a moment while I put my law school hat on.

Libel suits can be brought for false statements published in writing. Slander suits can be brought for false statements made verbally. Defamation is “a false statement presented as a fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person it is about.

Notice that all three require that the statement be false. If I call someone a murderer in an essay, and the person has been convicted of murder, it doesn’t matter how pissed off he is that I’ve written that about him. He is out of luck because I told the truth.

“Can be brought” is in italics because bringing a lawsuit is not easy to do. Most people want or need to hire lawyers for that. And, believe it or not, lawyers don’t take any case that comes their way; the case has to be both winnable and worth significant dollars, or the client has to pay up front.

Some jurisdictions also require that the false statement was made with an intent to cause harm. In all jurisdictions, harm as a result of the false statement is required for damages to be awarded.

“Harm” is usually monetary harm. Here’s an example: I lie and call Mr. X a thief in my memoir, and he loses his job because of it. As a result of my false statement, he suffered the harm of losing his paychecks, and maybe future paychecks if my memoir is so widely published and read that everyone believes it.

So let’s say I self-publish a memoir and sell 200 copies. In the memoir, I falsely state that my neighbor, Ms. X, poured kerosene on my vegetable garden. Ms. X works as a psychologist. She sues me for libel, claiming that my memoir has ruined her counseling practice.

But my memoir only sold 200 copies, and most of those copies were purchased in another state. Ms. X is not licensed to practice in the other state. The harm she suffered is minimal. The judge finds in her favor, awards her $100 in damages, and orders me to withdraw my memoir from further publication until I delete any references to Ms. X.

On the other hand, if I sold 10,000 copies in my home state and Ms. X owned a landscaping business that went out of business as a result of bad publicity from my book, then her damages would be higher. She might even be able to convince a lawyer to take her case.

And remember, lawyers don’t take on cases that aren’t worth money unless the clients want to pay them a substantial retainer based on a high hourly rate.

So don’t worry about being sued if you are telling the truth. Truth is an absolute defense to these sorts of cases.

Once you feel your memoir is finished, then think about these two questions:

  1. Does your work have a whiny or bitter tone?
  2. Have you told the truth?

Tone is not always evident to the writer. Double-check your tone by asking a friend or writing partner to read with an eye for whining and bitterness. Both tones will dilute — or even destroy — any wisdom or beauty or excitement or analysis you want to share. Also, the market for whiny and bitter writing is teensy-weensy.

If you want to pre-empt whining and bitterness, consider putting some distance (spatial or chronological) between yourself and the events of your story or poem. Distance coats a story with compassion, revealing how external events shape mistakes or even cruelties. Distance makes it possible to see the complexity of events. Distance is a ladder that lets you get down from a high horse or climb up from a slough of self-blame. It’s a lens that lets you see all the love you might have missed.

What about telling the truthLike George Orwell, I believe in an objective truth when it it comes to facts. However, we all remember events in slightly different ways from others. Don’t worry if your memory doesn’t exactly jive with your sister’s about some event from your childhood. But if memories differ significantly, that might be interesting enough to include in your piece.

Publishers may fact-check your nonfiction writing as insurance against libel or slander actions. This happened to me with an essay about my nephew hiding in a suitcase from DEA agents. In both nonfiction and fiction, publishers may fact-check your science, or your assertions about other disciplines. This happened to me with an essay about marriage and bird-watching for O, the Oprah Magazine.

What about the kind of truth that doesn’t rely on facts, sometimes called emotional truth? If it’s not about facts, it’s not slanderous. Writers and critics disagree about the nature of emotional truth. For me as a reader, it happens when I’m so enveloped in the sensory details of a real or imagined character’s joys and sorrows, I empathize with the character. For me as a writer, it happens when I remember to invest my essays and poems with those sensory details, and with plenty of love.

Writers are always trying to get at truth. When we succeed, it’s magic. When we fail, it’s a lesson. And since writing demands learning, those failures are lessons we need.

Don’t let worrying about being sued get in your way while you’re writing. But once you’re ready to send your work out for publication, check your tone and your facts, and aim for truth.

Writing Memoir: Touch the Love

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So often, memoir includes writing about other people in our lives. How do we make those others come alive to readers?

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that in writing memoir, we should try to see ourselves as characters who have strengths, weaknesses, motivations. And that’s true for writing about others in our lives, too.

But if you’re like me, not everyone you write about in your memoir is a person you have only good feelings toward. In fact, we might feel resentment, rage, disappointment or even hate toward certain people who appear in our stories.

In my experience, it’s difficult to write well while experiencing negative emotions.

Also, if we write our negative feelings into these unpleasant other characters, two unfortunate things can happen to the memoir:

  • We, the writers, begin to sound unpleasant at best, or full of resentment at worst, both of which will turn most readers off.
  • The unpleasant others come across as one-dimensional, which is boring, especially if they occupy more than a very minor role in the story.

One solution to this difficulty of writing about unpleasant, disappointing, or toxic people is simply this: do not write about them. Cut them out of your story, just as you may have wished to cut them out of your life. You have the power. It’s your story, and no one else’s.

Another solution is to get in touch with the love you feel or felt for the person. See that person in your mind’s eye and imagine your heart opening. See the person as he was as a child. See the person as she was when you loved her most. See the person as a fellow struggler against suffering and despair.

Human relationships are so very complicated, and it’s so very possible to feel both love and hate for one person, even at the same time. And that is never boring.

When I reunited with my birth family nearly thirty years ago, I found I had five brothers and a sister. My brothers all suffered from addiction, and if you know anything about addiction, you know that it’s a family disease. Everyone in the family suffers. My feelings for my brothers were a mix of love, frustration, and even rage, especially when their addictions damaged their children.

Are you feeling bored yet? If not yet, you would become bored soon if I kept on in this vein. And you wouldn’t see my brothers as individuals; they’d become stereotypes.

My youngest brother, David, was the most severely addicted one. Here’s a scene I wrote while trying to touch the love I felt for him, even while he was at his weakest. In the scene, my sister Belinda and I are visiting him in the nursing home he’d been sent to when he was thirty-eight years old.

David’s nursing home allowed patients to smoke in one common room, and in a chain link fenced yard, so we’d bring him cigarettes, too. There was no point in denying him anything he wanted as his life inched toward its certain end, although we didn’t know how quickly that end would come.

I can still see him now in the chain link yard where we went to escape the air conditioning that was too much for all three of us. Wrapped in a thick sweater, he sat beside me and Belinda in his wheelchair with a lit cigarette in one hand, while pawing at Belinda’s arm with his other hand, saying, “Give me a cigarette, Belinda.”

The only thing left besides his restless cravings was his love for his sisters, and his daughter Brandi, and the rest of the family. The diabetes, the heart disease, and the years of active addiction had whittled him hollow, from the inside out.

Other men and women like David inhabited the nursing home, people who should have been in the prime of their lives, but whose brains and muscles and bones and nervous systems had been decimated by chronic drug use and the violence that so often comes with it. I’d expected beds full of frail little old great-grandmas and great-grandpas.

But instead, there were vacant-eyed people in their thirties and forties prowling the hallways like zombies. The man who’d lost a leg to an infection caused when he’d tried too hard to open up a collapsed vein to shoot heroin. The woman whose head had been bashed in by a john when she was out tricking for money for crack. The semi-comatose overdose victims.

An orderly was stationed in the smoking room to prevent fights, and to stop the stronger patients from taking advantage of the weaker ones like David. Belinda worried constantly, and I did too, but this place had been the only one that would take our brother.

When Brandi met us there one day with her newborn daughter Paris, she passed her baby to her father without any wariness. David held his granddaughter, looking at us all with a new wonder in his eyes, stronger than what he greeted me and Belinda with each time we visited as if to say “You came for me, for me, for me.” He cradled the baby gently as his muscle memory resurrected itself and all the fatherly tenderness he’d showered on Brandi returned.

Something in his peripheral vision distracted him, and he reached toward Belinda with one hand while still protecting Paris with his other arm. “I want a grape soda from the machine, Belinda, a grape soda.”

Sugar, and alcohol, and pain pills, and crack cocaine. Love had been enough to relieve him of his cravings for months at a time in the past, to keep him focused on his daughter without falling prey to distractions. But now, love didn’t work for but a few minutes.

Writing Memoir: Self as Character

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Why should you write about yourself as if you’re a character in a story?

Memoir is story, it just happens to be a story that’s true. And one thing that’s easy to forget when writing memoir is that your readers want to get to know you. And to them, you’re a character.

Just as in real life, that getting-to-know you happens gradually, through what you wear, where you hang out, what you say, where you work, who your friends and family are.

In any story, we expect main characters to grow and change. Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Readers want to know who you are when the story begins, who you become when the story’s conflicts arise, and who you are when the story ends.

Currently, I’m reading Chuck Wendig’s craft book Damn Fine Story. It’s stuffed with clear and practical advice for writing stories that sweep readers off their feet and glue them into the comfy chair, or bed, or where ever the reader prefers to read.

Wendig is primarily a novelist and screenplay writer. So far, I haven’t seen him mention memoir, but IMHO, advice about writing stories (and that’s his focus) apply to memoir as well as fiction. I anticipate quoting from him often in this series about writing memoir.

Anyways, here are some points he makes about character development:

  • Characters are their problems. For example, in my adoption reunion story, my problem is that I don’t know where I came from.
  • Characters face internal and external complications. We’re talking about conflicts. In my story, my internal resistance to dependence on others was further complicated by my birth family’s external expectation that I would depend on them for love.
  • Characters create a story by interrupting the baseline, the status quo.Every story begins with a static situation and goes from there. Even if the original static situation is chaotic, it’s still the baseline from which the story begins. No interruption in the baseline = no story.
  • The best characters end a story changed. And isn’t that what memoir is about? How we, the writers, have been changed by a particular series of events?

So how do you turn yourself into a character? One way is to imagine readers are meeting you for the first time. Show them a picture (in words) of the person you are at the beginning of your story, and use plenty of concrete, sensory details. Here’s a current paragraph from my memoir draft that tries to do that work:

To ease my anxiety at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was in silk. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a twelve-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The nineteenth-century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, and the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age nine.

The bold-faced words are, of course, those sensory details. The reader will know I’m a lawyer, I’m willing to take a long train ride, and as a twelve-year-old child, I was a bookworm and a drug user. But, I notice, there’s nothing in this paragraph that says what I look like.

Straight physical descriptions (I was short, plump, and had dark hair) can sound forced, or boring, or both. Some writers think that physical descriptions are unnecessary for main characters because readers like to visualize them on their own.

But if I tie a physical description of myself to an action or emotion, that might work. Let’s see.

Anxious at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d twisted a section of my dark brown hair around one finger until it formed a spiral curl. To distract myself, I spent much of the twenty-two-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Balancing a folder on my ample lap, I paged through it with my skinny little chicken fingers.

Better? Maybe so. Let me know if you feel so inclined. Here’s an example from a better writer, Marilynne Robinson, from her novel Housekeeping.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

Notice how each characteristic is paired with a verb and given an action.

Ways other than action to describe yourself as a character are:

  • Let other characters describe you. “Her friend turned to me and said ‘Your sister says you’re bizarre, but your brother-in-law says you’re merely eccentric.’”
  • Describe objects near and dear to yourself. “I held my teddy bear, which I’d received on my first birthday.”

Any other ideas?

Write on.

Memoir Writing: Tie Your Story to a Significant Issue

“Black and white photograph of the back view of street protesters in a rally in Washington.” by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

Why have so many memoirs of recovering from addiction been published in the last fifteen years? I’d say it’s because addiction and recovery are significant issues for many contemporary families. In other words, those memoirs are personal stories touching on a big-picture issue. As such, they become more relatable for people who are concerned about those issues.

In the same way, memoirs about people who survive a serious or chronic illness can give hope to people who are experiencing health-related challenges, or whose loved ones are suffering.

People read memoirs to identify and clarify their own stories, as well as for the beauty of language, the pull of story, or the memorable characters. Touching on significant issues in the context of a personal story helps to alleviate any “me, me, me, it’s all about me!” in a memoir, and it also makes the personal more universal. Or, to quote the second-wave feminist movements, it shows us that the personal is political.

Currently, I’ve divided my memoir draft in three sections. The bigger issue in the first section of my memoir is family separation and reunification. In the second section, it’s addiction’s impact on families. I haven’t figured out what it is in the third section, which so far covers the deaths of many family members, DNA testing, what happens when kids who were in foster care have kids of their own, and mass incarceration in the American prison system, among other things.

Maybe that’s a heads up for me that I’m covering too much ground in that third section.

Or maybe if I choose one significant issue, that can become my organizing principle for the third section.

But because I’ve had editors tell me (sometimes) that I sound like a bossypants, I know there’s a danger for me in deliberately exploring a significant issue in a memoir.

The danger in tying your story to a bigger issue is that you might fall into didacticism, better known as being a bossypants.

And no one likes a bossypants. So let’s say I decide the third section of my memoir is connected to the issue of mass incarceration. It’s tempting for me to haul out my old lawyer identity to argue against mass incarceration using evidence like studies showing how expensive it is, or international comparison statistics.

But my memoir is a personal story, not an editorial. Instead of taking the easy way out by arguing the evidence against mass incarceration, I have to rely on the details of the story.

So let’s see — how am I doing? What are your thoughts about the prison I describe in this scene from an essay about visiting my niece BeeBee at a women’s prison in Florida? Am I being a bossypants?

It was no place like home, but it was a place for families. They sat on metal benches in the processing room, waiting for their loved ones, hoping the next face would be the one they’d longed to see. As if to extend the suspense, the guards released inmates one by one through a gate in a chain-link cage. My niece BeeBee strutted out in a yellow t-shirt and chinos, and I stood up to hug her. 


Like every woman I’ve ever known who’s done time, BeeBee had put on weight. This is usually a good thing; most women who get sentenced to prison have worked their bodies to the bone for drugs. When our hug ended, she stepped back and bounced on the balls of her feet like an athlete. Her thighs were thick with muscle and her arms were round, but her waist was still trim. When she lived on the outside, she’d made a living selling drugs and dancing in strip clubs; in prison, she made her way by winning dance challenges, and by winning fights.


We walked outside to the visiting area in the prison yard. Concrete tables squatted under a roof for shelter from the rain or the hot sun, but we didn’t need protection that day. The sky was clear, and the air was warming, but I already felt locked in and ready to leave.

Across the yard, on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, a massive concrete block building was going up, a construction project that wasn’t visible from the road. BeeBee told me it would be an addition to this women’s prison, and it looked as if it would be ten times as big as the current facility. The grapefruit I had for breakfast congealed in my gut, rose up, and burned my throat, as if I already knew that once construction was completed on this monster, it would rank as the largest women’s prison in the entire country.


Then she started talking about the times when I used to rent a beach house on Tybee Island, near Savannah, Georgia, and our whole family stayed together for a week. In those years, my nieces and nephews — eleven of them — were all children, running wild on the sand, rampaging through the ice cream parlor, and tearing up the rental house. I’d sometimes get the middle-class heebie-jeebies when they were too loud in a restaurant, or too daredevil on a playground, but mostly I sat back and admired their untamed joy.

How about you? What bigger issues do you grapple with in your memoir, whether it’s written or planned or somewhere inbetween?