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 King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
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.