Memoir: Under Attack

memoir writing: we all have a story to tellOn New Year’s Eve Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Opinionator explaining that, over 20 years of teaching, her signature assignment has become the humiliation essay. It is her way of giving her students what they want, setting them on the path to publish essays and sell memoirs.

The piece sparked a host of debate, reigniting the well-worn argument that the personal essay is killing journalism. Punches were thrown across the web, insults typed and sides taken.

As someone who has a memoir coming out in 4 months, I read Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker response to Shapiro’s piece in a state of near numbness. My eyes stuck on the line that most people’s lives are not interesting enough for a memoir or personal essay and I gulped down his assertion that those writers who start by writing about themselves “end up like bands that used their entire lifetime’s worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up.”

Used-up, finished, uninteresting – hardly a hopeful start to a writing career that has yet to hit the shelves.

And yet, it’s noise I’ve already heard, lines that have already played on repeat in my own head for years. Self-doubt is nothing new. I was never trained as a writer, barely trained as a journalist, and I never set out to write a memoir. I set out to listen to hundreds of stutterers and researchers and write something worthwhile. These people had stories, fascinating lives that made me sit forward in my seat and stay up all night transcribing their words. As I wrote their words down on paper I barely wove myself between the lines. But, in the end, I felt like I was hiding. I felt like I was asking everyone else to bare their souls while I sat safely nodding on the other side of the tape recorder.

So I kept their voices in the book but made my life the structure, made my life the line that all our stories hung from. But I was never aiming to humiliate myself, I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel sorry for me, for any of us. Rather, I was trying to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long.

I was attempting to write in the memoir tradition of the writer’s I adored. Writers like Strayed, Karr, Walls and Flynn. Far from the inward-looking narcissists that Nolan dismisses so eagerly, these are people who write about themselves with humanity and who look outward to encompass the world we all live in. As Stephen Elliot puts it, they are the type of writers who “inhale their surroundings.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be shaming those people who write about themselves but rather all of us should hold ourselves to the highest standards in both our writing and our lives. If we can be thoughtful in all of that then, perhaps, we can rise to meet our collective potential.

5 thoughts on “Memoir: Under Attack

  1. What I love about this post is that you reveal selflessness in your approach to writing.

    You speak of using your life story as “the structure…the line that all our stories hang from” and “inhaling your surroundings.”

    This sounds like self-deprecation for the sake of sharing a message. Or, getting out of the way to convey something meaningful.

    Just this last weekend my wife and I spent some time with good friends who had just taken a family member with cerebral palsy to a sledding hill. As they relayed the story of their experience…seeing the pure joy on the face of someone they love experiencing something amazing…we didn’t for a second hold our friends accountable for relaying their own experiences in the process.

    I also think of the New Testament resurrection narratives. They are told in different ways, through the lens each unique author. I’ve always found these differences as illustrative of the beauty of the event. Or, what would you share if you experienced a resurrected love one? Would it differ from what I might share? Does that matter?

    Finally, I had the opportunity to attend the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 1999, with my friend Joe. He probably would tell you that the highlight was watching Christina Aguilara sing (ahem…lip sync) “Genie in a Bottle” from a float. Me? I remember the mass of people and the rain that dripped down my back from the umbrella I was standing half under.

    The point: when Nolan says, “The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result,” my conclusion is that you find yourself standing in the latter half of the sentence…only (thank goodness!) stories produced!

    Namely, as you allow important voices to speak through the structure of your life, my guess is that they will transcend your own. And while we will be appreciative of your efforts, it will be as our guide.

    Can’t wait to read the book!

  2. I too appreciate the comment above and agree. These articles seem to set up opposing mutually exclusive arguments, whereas I think both actually make valid points in a world where parallel, differing views and interests can coexist. The extremes of either approach disallow pluralism and reason, they presume there is only one value, one universal truth of what is “good” and only one taste. This is not so.

    Memoir does not necessarily equal narcissism – though of course it may, depending on the depth or shallowness of the narrator. Not to mention their motivation in exposing themselves. On the other hand, third party reporting does not always provide superior content or value — though it may offer us profound and humbling information. Those voices we cherish often inspire us most in sharing their own humanity. You know this from the writers you have loved. Don’t let a polemic rob you of what you know to be true and valuable. Write on, Katherine, your voice is compelling and your willingness to share yourself selflessly for the illumination and inspiration of others is NOT narcissism but authenticity and generosity.

    In writing about others, life, the world, I firmly believe we cannot check our hearts at the door. Like it or not, each of us does experience everything through our own lens. Thus it is precisely the writerly intelligence expressed from within that invites us beyond, connecting us to others and helping us to see a world greater than ourselves. The Nolan Gawker deconstruction of why we should care – or not care – seemed overly simple and brutal to me. Yet I also recoiled from some of Shapiro’s revelations, they reminded me too much of self indulgence and “look at me”…

    If a memoir can answer the question why it should be told, as yours can, and inspire others, as you already have, then it has value. Period. And a plague on any who presume to prescribe the one kind of writing that has value!

  3. Alison – Beautifully put. I’ve read your comment over and over to to get all I could from it. I particularly love this line: “It is precisely the writerly intelligence expressed from within that invites us beyond, connecting us to others and helping us to see a world greater than ourselves.”

    • That is very dear of you to put it that way. I wanted to respond to you so much last night but it was hard to organize my thoughts succinctly. Specially as I was on my ipad where editing is much more of a chore. I am glad something came through the jumble. Love…

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