Why I Write Memoir (Excavating a Life)

SoldiersA long-time friend and important supporter of my work wisely suggested that I come out of the closet and become less close-mouthed about being a writer.

Hence this new Excavating a Life page on Books Can Save a Life, a kind of journal I’ll update from time to time as I work on a memoir.

My friend’s suggestion opened up a host of personal issues for me too numerous to delve into here: some are addressed in my memoir, and some I’ll write about in future posts. But suffice it to say I hesitated, in part because I believe in NOT saying much about the book or poem or essay one happens to be writing. Many writers would agree with this.

But not talking about a specific project isn’t the same thing as not talking about being a writer. And, let’s face it, I gave up a job I really liked and often miss because I needed more time and energy to see the memoir to completion. Since my days now largely revolve around writing the memoir (or they’re supposed to), it becomes very weird not to talk about this when other people ask me what I do with my time.

So, now I tell people I’m working on a memoir. Which generates all kinds of interesting questions and comments.

Liars' ClubYou may or may not know that memoirs have a REALLY bad reputation in some quarters. Mary Karr, whose memoir The Liars’ Club I view as a work of genius, wryly says memoir resides in the “low-rent” district of books and literature.

Some literary critics don’t even consider memoirs literature. Navel-gazing, they say, and often navel-gazing not done well.

For a time this bothered me. Was I spending my days navel-gazing?

But I’ve heard this criticism of memoir so many times now, that I’ve lost interest in it. For the most part, (not always) it no longer has the power to make me self-conscious when I write.

Without apology, I can say writing a memoir does require a good bit of navel-gazing. There’s no getting around that. The very nature of memoir is internal, psychological. It is first person point of view, however flawed and unreliable that interpretation of reality may be. (This is not an original thought on my part. See for example Brooke Warner’s thoughts at HuffPost Books.)

It is trying to figure out what the hell happened and then trying to make sense of it in a way that pulls the reader in. The writer’s journey becomes the reader’s journey, because the reader has had his own baffling, mind-blowing life. As the writer works things out on the page, the reader is right alongside her trying to come to grips with whatever blindsided her (the reader) on her own life journey.

If the memoir is powerful and offers a bit of wisdom and insight, that’s a win/win for the writer, the reader, and the world.

(This “without apology” business I learned from Eric Maisel and his Deep Writing seminar. He taught us to honor our writing, to make no apologies for it. He taught us to say this to ourselves when we need to: “That thought doesn’t serve me or my writing.” So if I get to thinking I’m navel-gazing, or if I hear someone else speak dismissively of memoir, I say to myself: “That thought doesn’t serve me if I want to complete my memoir and get it out into the world.”)

Getting back to those comments and questions I’ve gotten about memoir: A few people have a hard time with the idea that I reconstruct dialogue. How can I remember someone’s remark from twenty years ago, let alone an entire conversation? Aren’t I really just making things up? Isn’t that suspect?

If I’m making up the dialogue, what else might I be making up or misremembering? How else might I not really be writing the truth?

Considering how problematic memoir is, why not write a novel? Since I can’t guarantee 100 percent accuracy, why not write fiction? That way if I get something wrong it doesn’t matter. Fiction isn’t “the truth.”

Now, this is a loaded, much-debated issue with many facets. This is what I want to focus on here:

The Glass Castle

Another highly regarded memoir

My memoir is about growing up with a mother who had a serious mental illness. The illness was bad enough, but everyone pretended there was nothing wrong. No one spoke about or acknowledged the elephant in the room. Everyone seemed to feel it was perfectly fine to leave us kids alone with our mother, even though they certainly wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon with her. She could be, at best, decidedly unsociable and, at worst, hostile and scary.

(To be clear, my mother was a brave, strong, caring woman, and as good a mother as she could be.)

Not knowing what to do with my feelings of distress, sensing people didn’t want to deal with them and that no one was going to help us, I swallowed them. I pretended I was happy. I became ashamed of the dark feelings I shared with no one.

A parent in the throes of psychosis doesn’t really see her children. Her demons have all her attention, at least for the moment. The children become invisible to her, and the children know this. Between their parent not seeing them, and other people not acknowledging their unfortunate family situation, they begin to feel invisible.

They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.

As someone who wanted to write, who wanted to be creative, I found that I’d locked away my most essential, authentic self. I was alienated from my own shadow, my own best “material,” the very bedrock I should have been writing about. So I didn’t write, at least not for a long time.

One way to re-connect with one’s essential self is to write a memoir, as difficult as that process can be. One way to no longer feel invisible is to write a memoir.

I’m writing a memoir because I want to (and feel compelled to) tell my story, my own true story. I want to say what really happened, at least from my perspective. For me, writing fiction just won’t cut it.

Lord knows, the world is full of people far, far more wounded than I. In so many respects, I’ve been exceedingly fortunate. The best memoirists are not out to portray themselves as victims or to gain attention or sympathy. If they’ve made it as far as having a memoir published, they don’t need a reader’s sympathy. They are, among other things, trying to bring valuable stories into the world.

Wild

One of the most influential memoirs in recent years

I believe this is the age of the memoir, and it’s about time, because the world needs memoirs. (Though I acknowledge that reading memoirs isn’t for everyone.)

We’re bringing to light the dark secrets we hid growing up. We’re looking at what it means to be a family, what holds one together and what tears one apart. We’re hoping to change things so people like my mother get the help and support that is their right. We’re questioning long-accepted social values that have brought us to some bad places.

Just think of all the memoir writers – and readers – who no longer feel invisible, whose energy and creativity and wisdom are being liberated, helping all of us achieve a more enlightened world.

Next up: Back to books – The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (I’m loving it.) Down the road on Excavating a Life: Memoir and shame.

Please share this post with memoir lovers, memoir writers and memoir skeptics. Do you have a favorite memoir? Do you dislike memoirs? Are you writing one? Tell us about it in the comments.

33 responses

  1. Val, I just started an anthology called Why We Write About Ourselves, where 20 memoir writers explore just that. It’s edited by Meredith Maran, a lesbian activist our age who has written several memoirs herself. A book to review here?

  2. Valorie, I loved reading memoir before I even knew that’s what they’re called. Years ago, after I went through a recovery journey, I decided I wanted to write a book about it. But it wasn’t until I started reading memoirs a few years ago that I realized this genre was the perfect format for me to tell my own story. Keep writing. I suspect there’s no shortage of readers.
    Blessings ~ Wendy

    • Wendy, I think I read memoirs before I knew what they were, too! Memoir writers are a relatively small tribe, I think. It’s a calling. Though more people are reading them, and more people are writing them, which is exciting. Thanks for you kind words.

      • I think it’s a small tribe because writing memoir is a big step for a writer to take. But I’m finding it rewarding to uncover aha moments I’d forgotten about. And new ones happen as I pour my heart onto paper. I imagine you understand this well, too. 🙂

  3. Personally, I love reading memoirs. It sure beats watching reality TV (I haven’t watched TV for 27 years, so I’m casting judgement here). 😉 People have such interesting lives. I’m sure your story will serve both you and the reader.
    Glass Castle was one of my favorites and Wild was a bit hard to read, though well written. I’m going to have to look for Liar’s Club.

  4. Beautiful post, Valorie! You are so brave for venturing on this writing project – I admire you so much for that. It must be so hard to relive the past again while writing about it, but it must be therapeutic too. It is so wonderful that your friend inspired you and nudged you talk about your writing. I will look forward to reading more posts in this series. I also can’t wait to read your memoir when it comes out. Happy writing!

  5. Powerful stuff, Valerie. All so good, but I was particularly struck by this: “They enter adulthood hollowed out, still feeling invisible. This they bring to their work, their relationships, their life. They pay a heavy price. They don’t really know themselves or why they do some of the things they do. Often, they don’t go after all they can in life. They hold back. They hesitate to take risks. Their lives are the poorer for it, and so is the world, which is robbed of their full talents, wisdom, and unique contributions.” You have just given me a eureka moment for a fictional character I’ve been struggling with. I’ll keep these thoughts in mind as I develop her. Thank you! I’m so glad I found this post tonight.

    • Hi Gerry. Thank you for your thoughts and I hope someday to read the story your character is in. I was thinking the other day about Gloria Steinem whose mother was mentally ill. This certainly didn’t seem to hold her back but she does speak about how she suffered from Imposter Syndrome.

  6. I applaud your efforts to work through personal challenges, not only document them but publish them for others to learn from. A lot of us had childhoods with scripts that weren’t exactly written by Walt Disney. Here’s to generations of people reading your story, learning from it, and supporting improvements for mental health issues. I sincerely wish you continued good luck with your writing. 🙂

  7. Dear Valorie… such an interesting post. I think it’s quite a brave undertaking to write the memoir you describe. I have found in my own writing how nerve-wracking it can be to offer the world a vista of my private life. It can leave a person feeling quite vulnerable, but a good memoir can help others who resonate with the story to feel extraordinarily empowered.
    I look forward to reading it!
    Warmest wishes to you,
    James.

  8. I love a good memoir, personally, but I can see why memoirs might be considered the uninvited guest at the nonfiction head table. As with all genres of writing, it’s hard to write a good memoir and even harder to write a great one. I thought The Glass Castle was excellent. I have yet to read the others you mention in your post. Good luck with your memoir-writing!

  9. Val, this is a terrific post. I love your sharing the ‘why’. I remember in our very first online writing class, before you ‘came out’ about your mother, I shared with you how much I enjoyed your writing (you were describing the era when you lived in NYC) but that it seemed a little thin. Something was missing. I felt you could write in more depth , though I didn’t know in what direction. You thanked me and said you did have more to share, and, of course, in a very short time, your writing blew open.
    I love memoirs and read them all the time. For literary critics to slam a whole genre seems to me elitist and narrow. Having said that, there is something that at times gives me pause about memoir writing. I remember some years ago in England browsing through a Waterstone’s book store (their chain bookstore, sort of the equivalent of Borders) noticing that within the Memoir section was a subsection of books called ‘Painful Childhoods.’ And I had to chuckle. It struck me as a bit funny, and telling of our age. On one hand, it seems to me, it is so important to tell our stories, and at the same time, our stories are… just our stories. And I think some memoirs lose that distinction. But many novels are unconvincing, too. Within any genre, there will always be a range of quality.
    For myself, I’ve not as interested in my history as I used to be and I get bored going over my past. I’m more interested in what’s unfolding and evolving. This is why I’m not focused on writing my own memoir. But that’s just me. I still love reading memoirs—and look forward to yours!

    • Regarding your reservations about memoir, especially painful childhood memoirs –

      In the HuffPost Books essay, Brooke Warner quotes Liz Gilbert as saying if you have to defend memoir you’ve already lost. But here goes anyway…

      “….within the Memoir section was a subsection of books called ‘Painful Childhoods.’ And I had to chuckle. It struck me as a bit funny, and telling of our age….”

      Yes, it is telling of our age. There’s a reason there are so many memoirs about painful childhoods and trauma (well written, and not so well written by authors who can’t or don’t yet know how to see beyond their own trauma), among the 300,000+ books published in the US every year. Because there have been and always will be painful childhoods and trauma. This type of memoir is all the rage right now, in part because it’s a natural progression to a new form of literary expression. The genre is still relatively new, and I believe it will stay and evolve in interesting ways (such as H Is for Hawk).

      Many of these memoirs are about issues that affect all of us. I’ll be looking at one such memoir, Patrick Kennedy’s A Common Struggle, in February. He says:

      “Let’s start talking about every problem we have in this country in terms of how it can be addressed through improving diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness and addiction. For more problems than you think — health care, criminal justice, employment, homelessness, even the endless cycle of tragic school shootings — it is the only reasonable, evidence-based approach we have never tried.”

      I get bored going over my past, too (altho insights keep coming up), and I like unfolding and evolving just as much as the next person. It’s not just about “processing” a past, though, it’s about transforming it into compelling narrative meaningful to others. That is to say, it’s not all navel gazing, it’s craft, too.

  10. Hi Valorie, I am so glad to have discovered your blog. 🙂 And, I really needed to read this blog for several reasons.

    Valorie, I think your memoir is supremely important. The world should know your story. My mother has been battling clinical depression for about a decade. She has been on strong medicines, and therapy, but she keeps relapsing. Besides my family, our friends, and relatives, still do not understand her struggle. I am thankful to my father for giving her the most needed medical attention, love, and care. We love our mother, in spite of the demons that haunt her.

    My 9-year-old marriage broke last year, and I was also diagnosed with clinical depression, and general anxiety disorder. My friends thought I was wasting money on psychotherapy, and medicines, but I was sure that I needed it to cope with the steepest fall of my life, and to feel less abandoned.

    Mental wellness is still being taken for granted, and I appreciate the importance of people like you sharing your stories.

    All the best to you. I look forward to reading your memoir. 🙂

    Also, Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ is my most favourite memoir. I read right after my break-up, and it helped me to forgive myself, and let go of my past. I was glad to see that in your list.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    • Hi, Deepika –
      Thanks so much for sharing your story in the comments. It gives me encouragement as I write. Your father (and your family) sound so caring and wonderful. It strikes me that so many problems in our society can be traced to mental illness, yet we still don’t do nearly enough. Which is why soon I will also write about Patrick Kennedy’s memoir, A Common Struggle. Anyway,
      Deepika, thank you!

  11. I’ve read Glass Castle, it was great. I think memoirs can be some of the most moving and enlightening books, if written with honesty and insight. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller is another great one.

  12. GO GIRL !!! Val , you are enticing me totally ….. i also am on your list awaiting “your memoir”
    You are Brave , have an ability to express personal realities that certainly draw me in ….
    THANKS , Bonnie Y

  13. Valorie, if your memoir reads anything like this post does then I am very much looking forward to reading it! I didn’t realize that some people look down on memoirs. I always think that the people who write them are very brave, because of how personal they are. Obviously some memoirs are better than others, but I have liked most of the ones I’ve read. Two of my favourites are The Glass Castle and Wild. I am now on the lookout for The Liars’ Club! As you know, I also love The Dirty Life (a good chance to mention it again :)). Last year I read a good one about living with breast cancer by Gillian Deacon (Naked Imperfection), and a good one about alcoholism by Jowita Bydlowska (Drunk Mom). I can see how writing it all down would be therapeutic, and as a reader I find reading other people’s stories very moving.
    Good luck with your memoir! (Saying good luck makes it sound like I think you need luck to write it and I don’t, but since that is what we say..) 🙂

    • Hi, Naomi. Thanks so much for your kind words. Yes, isn’t Wild and Glass Castle great? I think you would really like The Liars’ Club, she is an amazing writer. And as for The Dirty Life – I love that one, and other memoirs that don’t deal with such dark topics. So many different ways you can go with memoir.

  14. Val, I can’t wait to read your memoir! You are such a good writer. “The Glass Castle,” which I read a few years ago, was an excellent read. I love memoirs! (In fact, I’m finishing my own “memoir” of sorts about my year with breast cancer.)

  15. Personally, I love a god memoir. While in school, I worked in The Biography, History, and Travel section at The Library. I was surrounded by stories, and I found them fascinating. As for accuracy, a great aunt of mine had the following to say when asked how she was able to remember all those stories: “At my age, (she was in her 90’s), there aren’t that many around who can correct me.” Best of luck with your writing, Valorie!

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