My preferred form of masochism is to call my personal writing useless and self-indulgent. It’s super effective, because baked into my urge to write is the presupposition that doing so might matter. But what if it doesn’t and never will? This idea is my proverbial elf-on-the-shelf: Oftentimes, it instills an unproductive sense of fear, but sometimes, in small doses, and when my mental health is feeling fortified, it serves as a helpful gut-check on my motivations. Does my writing feel useless and self-indulgent? Does it matter? (The elf thinks “sometimes” across the board.)
This is the delicate balance, I imagine, most writers must manage: to suppose you matter just enough not to quit, but not so much that you spend your life staring into your navel. And to some extent, that tension is probably healthy. Because even though I’m confident that writing, as an artform, can make a difference—that in fact other people’s work makes me feel like my life is worth living—it’s not untrue that it’s an exercise in vanity. In reveling in one’s own mind for long enough to sift out a narrative and then package it for other people’s consumption. The nerve! The gall! I’m so glad people do it.
When it comes to writing a memoir, this ideological tightrope seems especially treacherous. Not only must you feel confident in your life story, but you must hold onto that feeling long enough to hammer it into 50,000ish words, let editors tell you which parts of it suck, and then let anyone read and review it using the five stupid stars at their disposal. It’s a process that seems to demand both a flexible and ironclad constitution. I can’t imagine doing it. Which is why I reached out to five memoirists I admire about how they managed it. Below, in their words that I love so much, the best and worst parts of writing a memoir.
Samantha is a blogger, a TV writer, the author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life (2017) and Meaty (2018), and, according to Amber Tamblyn, “one of our country’s most fierce and foulmouthed authors.”
The best parts of writing about yourself:
1. Readily available subject matter. Even when I’m doing literally nothing of excitement or importance, I can decide to maybe take a class (lmao yeah right) or go to a bar (that doesn’t have a dress code) and hope that something gross or hilarious happens while I’m there so I can write about it. Also the world is fucking absurd and reacting to it provides so much material, and I never have to worry about “advancing the plot” or whatever. As long as I manage to avoid death my entire writing career can survive on “hey what do I think about this dumb thing?” and then *clickety clack* until I hit my word count.
2. I’m an expert so I can never be wrong. Being wrong is embarrassing, which is why I don’t do journalism. I think that if you’re going to write authoritatively about a subject you should be educated in it and I don’t have the capacity to learn new or complicated things. At this point in my life I just let information wash over me and hope that I absorbed at least a little of it, and that’s fine when all I have to know are my own feelings. No one wants to hear me talking about politics or the ozone, I can’t even define them. But if you’d like to know how many times I’ve sat outside a party in my car watching people have fun through the window because I was anxious about having worn ill-fitting pants well then great, I have a PhD in social anxiety!
3. Um…better me than someone else? Although if I weren’t writing about me who the fuck even would? I’m only interesting because I can joke about my own butt.
The worst parts of writing about yourself:
The absolute worst part is the potential collateral damage, because I’m not only writing about myself—I often write about myself in relation to other people or places or experiences. And if I’d like to keep those relationships intact I have to take care not to shit all over a person I actually enjoy and would like to keep around. I don’t do a lot of public airing of private grievances unless I’m ready to go full scorched earth, but I do try to get permission from people to write about a shared experience or put our drama out for the world to pick apart. And sometimes those assholes say no! Which is the next-worst part of writing about myself. So many horrible and funny things I gotta keep in the group chat because my homies have a healthy amount of shame and self-worth. It’s a tragedy for real.
Lesley is the co-creator of Netflix’s “Love” and author of Dear Diary (2007), which Sarah Silverman describes as “[a] chance to have all the benefits of a tortured adolescence without the shitty childhood.”
The best parts of writing about yourself:
I’m not interested in writing about myself anymore. I’ve done it to death and I’m pretty bored with that character these days. That said, I remember what the “best part” was—I use quotations because I’m not sure I agree with what I’m about to say, which was that I probably felt like it was “easier.” Writing is hard and pointless work and I’m not sure why anyone does it (including me). When I was in the habit of writing about myself it was only because it felt like a “work loophole” at the time. I don’t think it was and I’ll say that the best part of writing for me now, and for always past, present, and future, is being done.
The worst parts of writing about yourself:
You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
The worst part of writing about yourself is thinking that you’re special—that you’re unique and deserve to be heard “so that you can be of service and connect to others.” That’s bullshit. If I really wanted to “be of service” I certainly don’t think WRITING is the best way to achieve that goal. Maybe, I don’t know… soup kitchen? That might be the quicker, easier, most selfless act of performance—it’s actually genius. Volunteering as performance art. I dare any millennial to major in volunteering at art school.
The best parts of writing a memoir:
Writing Woman Of Color was like writing one story, only to be rushed with a flood of other stories, memories, sights, sounds, feelings. It was like unlocking certain boxes that I’d stored away. Some made it in the book and many didn’t. But the whole process allowed me the room to care for parts of my past I hadn’t yet, because I simply did not remember them.
Equally, it was the experience of writing and working on such a project, and having my children be aware of that. The experience of writing my first book while raising school-aged children who are actively part of that experience with me, and seeing me working on something in small doses every single day that is much larger, was quite remarkable. It was a wonderful teaching experience about life, work, creativity, womanhood, and of course, telling our stories.
The worst parts of writing a memoir:
Woman Of Color was released in April, and now in (almost) August, I am just settling into what may have been the worst part. For me, it was dates. I wanted to be accurate, but memory (or kids, or trauma) often made these blurry. I would remember what I was wearing and how young I felt, but not exact years. My memories are a bit like puzzle pieces, and the idea that they needed to be exact was a bit scary. But I remember something I read long ago, that if you don’t write as if you’re precise, you don’t need to be. So I start off the book with a disclaimer of how I see things—that “this story is mine in a sea of others.” It was important for me to divorce myself from a perfect recounting and answer to my inner self instead. Before surrendering to this though, coming to terms with the imperfections in my memory was sort of the worst. We aren’t told we don’t need to be perfect when writing a memoir. But memoirs are often about the imperfections in life.
Everyone already thinks memoirists are chronic whiners, so I’ll be true to form and start with the worst part. The biggest problem with writing about myself is that I don’t live alone in a stark, featureless cell. (I mean, that’s the problem with a lot of aspects of my life.) In order to write about myself, I must write about other people. And—here’s a tip for aspirers—other people really, really do not want to be written about. What’s more, there’s a lot of moral gunk involved in the whole process. I’ve come up with various policies that help set boundaries and shape how I write about the people I love, but the problem of representing someone else’s life is never going to go away. And an awareness of that problem is a healthy impulse for a memoirist.
The best part of writing about myself: no research! Just kidding. Sort of.
Actually the best part is the knowledge that, if I’m doing it right, I’m helping the reader, in a way that I believe is unique to personal writing. Not to sound annoyingly goody-goody. When you write about your darkest self, the reader feels less alone. She sees her own pain reflected in your writing, and she realizes she’s not the only one who feels that particular pain. And moreover, she’s reading nonfictional pain, and has the chance to be comforted by the knowledge it really happened. No other art form provides this exact manner of solace.
Not that it’s easy. A month before I published my first memoir, I took to my bed. I was overcome with terror and embarrassment. All the shameful, humiliating things I’d confessed about myself crowded my head as I lay there clutching the counterpane. Now the world would know what a terrible person I was. Luckily I had just enough sense to reach out to a fellow writer, Lisa Jones. She had published her own memoir just a few months before, and she told me the feeling of exposure I was experiencing was normal. She said my feelings of squeamishness and embarrassment meant I’d done my job correctly. Readers, she promised, would respond most strongly to the passages of the book that had been most difficult for me to write. She wrote in an email that I reread dozens of times: “You’re simply a nice carpenter who has helped make a shelter for other people’s uneasiness by exposing your own.”
The phrase lodged in my head and I refined it into a kind of mantra: We build a structure out of our own discomfort so that others might take shelter there.
It turned out Lisa was right. When my book was published, a surprising thing happened—well, surprising to me anyway. Readers came up to me after events and passionately told me that what I’d written made them feel less alone. Sometimes they’d throw their arms around my neck and hug me. Sometimes they cried. And they invariably mentioned the parts of the book that had been the most difficult, most shameful to write: the parts where I savagely laid bare my own most troubled self.
When I wrote my second memoir, Love and Trouble, I kept that experience in mind and found myself going toward what was unappetizing in my consciousness, rather than backing away from it. And I found there’s a weird pleasure into stepping into the least appealing part of the self, rather than pretending it’s not there. I find it a kind of relief.
1. Having my memoir edited, really intensely (and well!) involved people I don’t really know leaving hundreds of comments in Microsoft Word about my innermost thoughts. I wrote things in my book that I was at that point fully unable to say out loud, and then would get an edit like, “I don’t quite know what you mean or why you did this, can you explain?” I have truly never forgotten some of my editor’s notes; some of which genuinely changed how I think about myself! I love to be edited and my editor was a genius, but to not just be discussing or defending or explaining my craft choices, but my human choices as well, was another level of ego-destroying. Probably in a good way, or necessary for the book, but painful nonetheless.
2. You will have to someday stand up in a room of people and read from your book while they stare at you. I love going to as well as participating in readings and events (mostly!), but sometimes it struck me as hilariously undignified to, for instance, be at an award ceremony with a dozen other writers and stand up in front of the crowd in semi formalwear and read about asking my husband to jerk off into my vagina.
3. I don’t know if this is particularly true lately or if it’s inevitable but I feel like a lot of people can’t help but read memoir as an opportunity to judge the author, as if reading is a game where if you can catch the writer revealing themselves to be less than perfect, then you can rest knowing you are better than them. I think a lot of it must be internalized sexism. Or just missing the point? But writing a book about your own life means people can feel like they know you, and easily forget that you wrote this book (often what feels like a lifetime ago) and chose what to share and how to present all of it. And it’s not you. You change, you change your mind, you feel different ways in different moods. But a book is forever!
How do their answers compare to your own experiences? Did this make you want to do some personal writing or run in the other direction?
Graphic by Madeline Montoya.