Memoir: it’s all about me, me, me. And yet in reality the focus is not on “me” at all—it’s on “you,” the reader.
Recently, I was teaching a memoir workshop when one of my students announced her plan to “write my late son’s memoir.” She explained she wanted to take her son’s journals (800 pages) and “edit them down” into a book-length memoir about his life: she’d craft scenes to link his thoughts together into a full narrative. She’d write the memoir in first person, she said, but she wouldn’t be the narrator—her deceased son would tell his story. In fact, her voice wouldn’t be in the manuscript at all.
While this sounded like an intriguing idea for a book, I explained to my student that it wouldn’t be memoir, a genre written from the direct experience and first person perspective of the writer.
In my own memoir, I describe how, after my mother’s death, I was cleaning out her condo to prepare it for sale when I found several notebooks of poetry and prose she’d written when I was a girl. My adult relationship with my mother had been ridden with conflict and emotional estrangement; for years, she’d refused to talk about traumatic events from my childhood, incidents from our family life, devastating truths that I was only coming to terms with in my thirties. My mother told me she couldn’t speak of or hear about the past, because doing so would kill her.
It was only after she died from an aggressive form of ovarian cancer (known as the “silent killer”) that I gained access to her uncensored thoughts and feelings, her voice, through her written words. The more I read, the more I came to know my mother, and her perspective. With each page I turned, our relationship deepened.
I encouraged my student to take the opportunity of our workshop to try out the practice of writing about herself in relation to her son’s journals, but she declined. She wasn’t ready to engage in the memoirist’s inward process, a kind of internal transformation or combustion of life, to revivify her personal experience on the page. She believed the endeavor would be selfish, solipsistic.
I know many people who think of first-person writing as self-catharsis or therapy. And there’s nothing wrong with writing for that reason. But when we write for an audience, it’s not enough to simply vomit life onto the page. The writer’s job is to create art in service to others.
When I write memoir, I’m engaging in an unspoken contract with the reader to deliver the whole story, to reveal the many dimensions of humanness, especially what is difficult to articulate. Doing so is the only way to earn the trust necessary for a reader to open my book and turn the page.
It’s only when my story transcends my own wishes, fears, triumphs, and grief that it can become meaningful to the world. Then it’s no longer my story, but our story.
Tracy Strauss, Fellow in Nonfiction