May 26, 2024

Why You Maybe Should Write a Memoir

Whenever a prominent person takes a potshot at memoir, I hear about it from my students, or come across it online in various memoir groups I’m a part of. Last week, Arthur C. Brooks’s The Atlantic article, “Why You Maybe Shouldn’t Write a Memoir,” landed in my inbox and in my feeds more than a few times. It made already-discouraged writers of memoir feel worse about their tender desire to write their stories. The piece followed a tried and true formula of taking aim at what I’ve often called “the genre people love to hate” by criticizing the person behind the effort. The message in this article is this essentially: If you want to write memoir, you’re self-centered; if you are thinking about your memoir, you should reconsider because you’re probably just addicted to talking about yourself.

Brooks’s argument, in a nutshell, is that being self-referential and talking about yourself is bad for you. It triggers the same part of your brain that makes people addicted to sex and gambling and alcohol. So, if you want to be mentally healthy, maybe you shouldn’t write a memoir. Connecting the problem of people talking about themselves too much and memoir writing is tenuous, though, if not lazy, as the two are not necessarily correlated. Some writers of memoir do probably self-reference too often in their everyday lives; others, I assure you, do not. Some memoirists are at home sharing every intimacy and personal detail online; many others are not.

Our culture promotes a me-centeredness that’s conflicting for most of us. Social media breeds self-centric behavior by rewarding us for it, and as writers, we’re supposed to be building our platforms and our brands—so we do it. Some people are fueled by these efforts, while others learn to make peace with the reality that it’s part of what it takes to be and become a writer/author. Brooks writes that 80 percent of all social media posts are posts about ourselves, and anecdotally from what I see on my social threads, this feels about right. What he didn’t note is that the algorithms and our own reactions promote self-centric posting. A good friend of mine who’s a well-known author shared with me recently that whenever she posts a selfie on Instagram, she gets thousands of likes, whereas when she posts articles she writes, she often will get just a few hundred likes.

But let’s try, if we can, to look at memoir on its own and for its own merits. Memoir is not an extension of what Brooks (with clear disdain) describes as “nattering on about yourself.” Memoir is not a series of self-promotional or self-congratulatory or look-at-me social media posts. In his article, Brooks references a publisher who said about memoir, “too many submissions are ‘just the writer’s own story, which is ultimately boring.’”

Clicking through to the original 2018 article, one can read said publisher’s full quote:

What I’m really looking for now are beautifully written memoirs that have some universal resonance. That’s what I think is the problem with most memoirs – there is nothing universal there. It’s rather just the writer’s own story, which is ultimately boring. Unless there’s some poetry or beauty to a memoir, it’s really just another blog.

This is a more inspiring message, insofar as this publisher is/was actually looking for memoirs, and most memoirists are in fact striving to create something beautiful that has universal resonance. Are there amateur writers out there who submit their work before it’s ready for prime time? Of course. Are there self-published authors who have published their stories of “what happened” in their lives with no effort at universal takeaways for the reader? Yes. Are these freshman efforts representative of the genre of memoir? No.

Interestingly, it’s another Brooks—David Brooks—to whom I’m turning this week to supplement my counterpoints to Arthur C. Brooks. In David Brooks’s new book, How to Know a Person, he wrote something quite profound, that mirrors what Linda Joy Myers and I teach our memoir students in our classes:

“A writer could blast out her opinions but writers are at their best not when they tell people what to think, but when they provide a context within which others can think.”

Later in the book, David Brooks shares the story of Frederick Buechner, whose memoir, Telling Secrets, is about losing his dad to suicide and his lifelong journey to come to terms with his grief. In his memoir, Buechner wrote, “What we hunger for, perhaps more than anything else, is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”

People do not natter on because they long to be known in their full humanness. People do not post selfies on social media because they long to be known in their full humanness. But people do write memoir for this reason.

David Brooks also wrote in How to Know a Person:

It is important to tell, at least from time to time, the secret of who we truly and fully are. Because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are—and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.

This is where the juice is. In memoir, writers tell the secret of who they truly and fully are. There is benefit here to the writer, but not only to the writer. I’ve read thousands of memoirs, and I know I’m a better and more empathetic person for it. I’ve entered into the body, heart, and lived experience of people of different races and ethniticies and cultures, of people from different socioeconomic backgrounds and lived experiences. Memoir, at its best, is both an invitation and a gift from the writer to the reader. It says, Come see. Come take a look around. What do you see here that informs your life? That broadens your understanding of what it means to be human?

This invitation to your reader is important for writers to keep in mind, of course. A memoir should not just be the “what happened” version of your story, though this is where all memoirists start. You work the craft to uncover the beauty, the poetry, and the universal takeaways for your readers that are interwoven into your life experience. There are countless memoirs that do this well,* and if you’re writing a memoir, you can do this, too.

So yes, you should write a memoir. And try not to be discouraged by the naysayers. They’re always going to be there—now, during the writing process, and after your book is published. And they have no bearing on your story, your will to finish it, nor the lives you will touch once your book is in the hands of its readers.

*Some of my faves that do the beauty/poetry/universal thing that all memoirists should aspire to:

You Could Make This Place Beautiful, by Maggie Smith
Mighty Gorgeous, by Amy Ferris
Blow Your House Down, by Gina Frangello
What My Bones Know, by Stephanie Foo
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon
Drinking, A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp
Lost & Found, by Kathryn Schulz
This Story Will Change, by Elizabeth Crane
Devotion, by Dani Shapiro
The Magical Language of Others, by E.J. Koh

This is certainly not a comprehensive list, but those memoirs that are top of mind when I think about universal resonance. If you’d like to add to this list in the comments, please do!

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