When Dani Shapiro was writing about her mother in her memoir "Slow Motion," she imagined sending her on a cruise around the world that would last exactly as long it took the book to "pass from public consciousness." Instead, she had a close friend, a parent of a teenager, give the manuscript a "mother read" to look for unintentional potshots.
Many memoirists fear that if they are honest, their relationships with the people in their books will be altered, compromised or damaged in some irrevocable way. So why do some authors insist on baring their lives and the lives of those around them for all to see? According to the writers profiled in "Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature," edited by Meredith Maran, there are many reasons, but one stands out: If a single person can read about their experiences and feel less alone, it's worth it.
Rather than a craft textbook theorizing the why and how of memoir writing, this collection reads like a series of interviews with some of the most well known memoirists working today. Maran's access to these authors — primarily American, but otherwise diverse in age, race, gender and sexual orientation — is impressive. They include MacArthur "genius" fellow Edwidge Danticat and Guggenheim fellow Nick Flynn; bestselling memoirists James McBride and Cheryl Strayed; and Meghan Daum and Sandra Tsing Loh, both personal essayists known to Los Angeles readers.
It's possible that "Why We Write About Ourselves" is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre. Reading these reflections, one gets a sense of the depth, strength and talent required to be what Pat Conroy, in his chapter, calls our culture's "designated rememberers."
Each chapter begins with a brief profile of the memoirist written by Maran, which mostly resembles a praise-filled introduction before an author appearance, followed by "The Vitals," a box containing a list of printed works, social media contacts and trivia, such as "Day Job: Nope."
The first-person accounts that follow touch on a wide range of smart, insightful observations on writing memoir. The authors also offer glimpses into their writing processes, their development as artists and occasionally, surprising personal details, unpopular opinions and literary gossip.
As one would expect in a collection about memoir, truth telling is a common thread. Ishmael Beah ("A Long Way Gone") advises memoirists to "seek to write your truth without thinking about the readers or publication." Darin Strauss ("Half a Life") believes, "If you write something honestly, it'll be worth reading. If you don't, it doesn't matter how good a writer you are. The reader will feel it." For Strauss, this means that showing the worst side of yourself — flirting at the scene of a car accident, for example — is the only way to get things right.
Pearl Cleage ("Things I Should Have Told My Daughter") has a different strategy; she writes that her goals in memoir are to "turn myself into a character people would want to spend three hundred pages with." Yet she also wanted to "tell the truth" and "tell a story that was interesting."
Many of the memoirists here also emphasize how important it is that the stories of their lives be crafted well as literature, using what A.M. Homes ("The Mistress's Daughter") describes as her full "training as a writer — finding language for primitive emotional experiences." Ayelet Waldman ("Bad Mother") underscores that "Writing memoir requires the construction of story and character in the same way that writing anything does. The trick with memoir is that the story and the character have to be true."
With that truth, enter the "Others" who are exposed in the subtitle of the collection. Danticat calls her work "we-moir" instead of "me-moir" because she realizes it's not just her story she's telling; her famous book "Brother, I'm Dying" tells the story of her family's emigration from Haiti. Kelly Corrigan ("The Middle Place") went so far as to make a rule for herself: "I am a person first, writer second. I will not violate my relationships." But not all writers share her priorities. Conroy ("The Water Is Wide") declares, "When it comes to memoir, I'll always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what is written."
It's easy to accuse those who write memoir of being self-serving: Are they shameless narcissists or uncontrolled confessors? Or are they something else — generous storytellers, willing to render their experiences as universal life lessons? This book shows it is likely some combination: that there is much nuance and variety at play in this type of writing.
However, most of the authors in "Why We Write About Ourselves" seem to be in agreement about an essential motivation for memoir: They write, says Anne Lamott, "to be of even the tiniest bit of help."
Daley is the director of Writing Workshops LA and teaches academic writing at Caltech.
Why We Write About Ourselves
Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Meredith Maran, editor
Plume: 272 pp., $16 paper