Writing Memoir: Self-Revelation

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash
“ 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.

Terror, Anxiety, and Not Much New Writing

In the spring of 2016, I got on a creative roll, waking up in the dark at 5:30 am and writing for 90 minutes before heading off to my day job. But as the 2016 election drew near, I focused more and more on reading the news each morning, and then each night. Each new misogynist revelation, each new racist pronouncement left me newly depleted. My morning writing practice fizzled out.

Since 11/9, I’ve been in a perpetual state of checking: checking the NYT, WaPo, the Guardian, checking 45’s Twitter feed, checking social media. Recently, I realized this checking behavior was what I did as a child in an abusive family situation, and later, a teenager in an abusive relationship. It’s got to stop.

People who’ve survived child abuse and intimate partner violence get used to walking on eggshells because abusers and batterers can snap at any moment. When I lived like that, in terror and anxiety, I monitored my boyfriend’s moods with great vigilance. I hung on to the fantasy that if I could predict his violence, I could prevent the next black eye, broken nose, split lip.

For many years after escaping that relationship, I was as head-shy as a maltreated horse. Any sudden movement near my head made me flinch. I thought that for the most part, I’d gotten past that.

But no. I live in a country where elected leaders exhibit the same characteristics as batterers: blaming others for their actions, denying or minimizing their own bad behavior, using sex as an act of aggression, losing their tempers explosively, insisting on control. And access to their babyish rantings and explosions is always just a click away.

So it’s not surprising, really, that I would be re-living the terror and anxiety of my youth now. The current political landscape is awash in overt racist and misogynist violence. It’s also awash in the more subtle violences that attack the health and security of women, of immigrants, of anyone who doesn’t look white, of gay, lesbian, and trans people, of people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. It’s much too much like the old days, when men were legally entitled to rape their wives, when homophobic violence was not prosecuted, when racists got away with lynchings, when men could beat their wives and children, when communities and government sanctioned such behavior or excused it as “private family business.”

For me, the terror and anxiety manifest now in my checking behavior. I spend way too much of my time and energy monitoring the political climate and obsessing about it. As if I could predict violence, subtle or overt, and so prevent it. As if.

So where’s the balance between staying informed enough to call my congressmen (yes, they are all men) regularly, and freaking out over every new photograph of a group of old rich white men smiling over meetings and documents meant to exploit or harm our planet, our people? Where’s the balance that will give me back at least some of the energy I need for early morning writing sessions?

Help me out here. Thank you.