Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)

Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

Why We Write About Ourselves book coverA few days after I wrote my blog post Why I Write Memoir (one of my most shared and commented on posts ever – many thanks to those of you who did so), I was intrigued to see at our local Barnes & Noble Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran, who is herself a memoirist.

Just published this year, I hadn’t known this was coming. Here’s Meredith’s dedication: “For those who read memoirs and those who write memoirs, and for those who wish we wouldn’t. We’re all just looking for the truth, aren’t we.”

Meredith writes that emotions ran high when she asked the authors, some of our finest memoirists, to share honestly what it was like for them to see a memoir through to publication.

Each memoirist gets his/her own chapter that concludes with a short “Wisdom for Memoir Writers” section.

You’ll find, of course, these writers have strong opinions and distinctive voices, with widely varying opinions about self-exposure, writing about others, truth and accuracy, and other memoir writing land mines.

As I try my hand at memoir writing, I appreciated the moral support, guidance, and encouragement I found here. If you’re writing one I think you will, too. Whatever challenges and blocks you’ve encountered, you can be sure these writers have faced down the same thing.

And if you love to read memoirs, you’ll likely find a few titles and authors you’ll want to check out. No doubt, you’ll be more aware of the behind-the-scenes decisions the memoirist had to make about how to tell her story, which will make your reading experience richer.

Here are some of my favorite memoirist comments:

The Great Santini book coverPat Conroy (The Great Santini): “Some of us are the designated rememberers. That’s why memoir interests us–because we’re the ones who pass on the stories.”

Cheryl Strayed (Wild): “I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay. I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

Jesmyn Ward (Men We Reaped): “The further I got into the book, the worse it got. Recounting the events when my brother died was so difficult….especially the very big edit I did with the direction of my editor, Kathy Belden, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in relation to writing. I did four drafts, and she was asking me at every point to offer some judgment, some assessment of these events…..I recounted a story about a cellar in the woods. Kathy had a page of notes on the section. She kept telling me to dig deeper, to look at myself in the past, to figure out why that cellar meant something to me…..I finally realized…All the feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness I had at that age were embodied by the cellar. It symbolized all the dark things that happened to me, things I thought I deserved because of the way I thought of myself at that time: as a young black woman in the South.” (Note: Jesmyn won the National Book Award for her novel, Salvage the Bones.)

The Mistress's DaughterA.M. Homes (The Mistress’s Daughter): “There were many points at which I thought, I don’t really want to be doing this. I want to stop. What propelled me to keep going was that I felt I could bring to the memoir my experience and training as a writer–finding language for primitive emotional experiences. One of the things that worked about the book was that it gave voice to people who hadn’t found language for the adoption experience. It allowed them to explore their own experience in a different way, and/or to have their feelings about it articulated and confirmed.”   

(Note: I especially liked Homes’ memoir.)

Dani Shapiro (Three memoirs: Slow Motion, Devotion, and Still Writing) “After I gave my mother the galleys, her therapist called and asked me to meet with her. What can I say? We were all New York Jews. I gave the therapist a set of galleys so she could read it before my mother did. After she read it, she said she didn’t think there was anything that would upset my mother, that it was very fair to her. I had two thoughts: First, that this therapist didn’t know my mother at all, and second, that my mother had been wasting her money for years…

…when people in her life heard that her daughter had written a memoir, they all read it as a way of trying to understand her: her doorman, her lawyer, her dentist, her neighbors. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing happening. It was like she was in The Truman Show. The whole thing was very sad and painful, but not painful enough for me to wish I hadn’t written the book.”

James McBride (The Color of Water“The narrative of the book was as thin and muscled as my life was at that time. You know, with every story you do, you’re trying to shove a lot of things into the keyhole and drag the reader with you. You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.”

“You write a memoir for the same reason you write a song–to help someone feel better. You don’t write it to show how smart you are or how dumb they are. You’re trying to share from a sense of humbleness. It’s almost like you’re asking forgiveness of the reader for being so kind as to allow you to indulge yourself at their expense.”

(Note: James McBride won the National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird.)

Here’s my 2016 list of memoirs to read – who knows how many I’ll get to:

In Other WordsIn Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube, Blair Braverman

A Common Struggle, Patrick J. Kennedy and Stephen Fried

Beautiful Affliction, Lene Fogelberg

The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Into Great Silence: A Memory of Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas, Eva Salitis

When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi

Just Kids; M Train, Patti Smith

Life From Scratch, Sasha MartinWelcome

Shepherd, Richard Gilbert

A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail, Jenna Butler

I would love to know if you have a favorite memoir, one that really spoke to you and that you’d recommend to others.



16 thoughts on “Why We Write About Ourselves (Excavating a Life)”

  1. I want to read In Other Words so much! Lahiri’s writing is beautiful for one thing, and the whole premise of being in Italy seals the deal for me.

  2. I think my favorite memoir may be All Over but the Shoutin’, by Rick Bragg. It’s about a someone who grew up poor in the South and wound up an editor at the New York Times without having gone to college.

  3. Why We Write About Ourselves sounds like an interesting book, even for those of us who don’t ever plan to do it. I love all the quotes you shared, as well as the one from the editor.
    You already know what my favourite memoirs have been (I think I shared them on your other post). Out of the ones you plan to read this year, the ones that caught my attention are When Breath Becomes Air, Into Great Silence (whales!), and Welcome To the Goddamn Ice Cube (the Arctic!). But I’m sure they will all be excellent. (And, of course, I already know that The Profession of Hope is very good – glad to see it on your list!) 🙂

    1. Naomi, I must have gotten the Profession of Hope memoir idea from you – can’t wait to dip into it. The whales one – Into Great Silence – I believe the author just passed away but she was devoted to ecology. Can’t wait to read the Ice Cube – my husband has been to the Arctic, and I would love among other things to see the Northern Lights someday. When Breath Becomes Air has been getting rave reviews.

    1. Kim, I like the humorous quotes, and also the heartfelt ones that are so honest about the memoir writing process. It’s a great list of authors; I also love memoirs by lesser known writers off the beaten path who follow their own cool and interesting life paths and write about them well.

  4. I just heard about this book today. I debate writing more traditional memoir myself but I am not certain that I remember the things I would like to explore or that I want to explore the things I do remember. I write about my thoughts and experiences at times but always from a mediated distance, I don’t know how open and vulnerable I want to be. In my real life it has not served me well.

    1. I’ve wondered about this with myself; it’s difficult to be as open as one can be in the first place, and then to have the toughness to withstand the criticism. Although the older I get the less I seem to care about criticism. Still, it’s a concern. It will be interesting to see what new forms and directions memoir takes. I like, for example, H Is for Hawk because MacDonald took the focus off of herself by writing about hawks and the similar experiences of TH White, which in the end told us so much about her (the author) in a powerful way. Really glad you stopped by and commented.

  5. Hi Valorie, thank you so much for sharing this list. I am planning to read Kalanithi’s memoir next month. 🙂

    And, I am very glad you found this book. It is inspiring to discover books that would take us closer to our goals/dreams. A serendipitous one at that indeed.

    I haven’t read a lot of memoir. But I adore two books. I read Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’, when I really needed to read it, and it resonated with me. Whenever my friends ask for recommendations, I push ‘Wild’ on to them. 🙂 I found it powerful, and I often quote it. Besides that, I loved Monica Holloway’s ‘Cowboy and Wills’. Holloway sent that book to me, all the from the US to India, after I participated in an Essay Writing competition that she hosted. The book was moving, and it subtly underscores the importance of understanding autism, and how service dogs can help children cope with it.

    1. First, when you read Kalanithi’s book, I’ll look forward to hearing what you think. Wild has been so powerful to so many people, and Cheryl Strayed really is a remarkable women, so giving to her readers. I’ve never read Holloway’s book, but that is so cool, your story of your connection with her.

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