In the voices of twenty landmark memoirists—including New York Times bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy—a definitive text on the craft of autobiographical writing, indispensable for amateur and professional writers alike.
For readers of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir, this follow-up to editor Meredith Maran’s acclaimed writers’ handbook, Why We Write, offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice for bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists.
Curated and edited by Maran, herself an acclaimed author and book critic, these memoirists share the lessons they’ve learned through years of honing their craft. They reveal what drives them to tell their personal stories and examine the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these outstanding authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most—and least—about writing about themselves.
“It's possible that Why We Write About Ourselves is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre.”
– LA Times
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Meredith Maran, a passionate reader and writer of memoirs, is the author of thirteen nonfiction books and the acclaimed novel A Theory Of Small Earthquakes. Meredith also writes book reviews, essays, and features for newspapers and magazines including People, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and More. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith lives in a restored historic bungalow in Los Angeles, and on Twitter at @meredithmaran. Her next memoir is about starting over in Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
Leslie Bohm Photography
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Oh, Becky Cole. Becky Cole! What’s not to love about an editor who starts her edit letter, “Do you have five minutes? Then you can probably make the requested changes in the ms. Golly, it’s good.” Thank you, Becky, for keeping both of us laughing even when certain unnamed memoirists (not one of whom appears in this book) proved to be kind of, well, difficult, causing us to wonder whether we could get away with, say, thirteen or fourteen contributors instead of twenty.
Linda Loewenthal, you’re such a good person, it’s hard to believe you’re an agent. You’re more like a spirit guide. A spirit guide who’s also a hardass negotiator and brilliant thinker and editor and book-doula and muse and, most of all, an indefatigable, unflagging, loving literary companion. Thank you. I love you.
For time, space, and profound nourishment: a thousand picnic basketsful of thanks to the artists’ colonies MacDowell, Yaddo, the Mesa Refuge, Ragdale, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.
Booksellers and independent bookstore owners: I hope everyone who buys this book will buy it from you.
To my friends and family: Thank you for holding me up, at all times, no matter what.
I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.
Gloria’s right. You can’t divorce a memoir. But, as the twenty successful authors in this book attest, you can (and some do) divorce, disown, de-friend, or defame a memoirist. If you want to ruin your life and/or others’, there’s really no more surefire method than writing a true-life tale according to you.
Why, then, do so many authors risk public, private, and/or professional excoriation for the dubious pleasure of writing about themselves? What is it about sharing one’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others that makes it worth the mayhem and mishegas?
Without demand, of course, there would be no supply. So we must also ask why we read memoirs. For centuries, readers, reviewers, and social commentators have been gobbling up first-person narratives, all the while diagnosing the books’ authors with attention-seeking disorders. Is the urge to read memoirs the same urge that makes us peek into strangers’ undraped windows at night—not just because we’re nosy, but to learn something from how other people live, in order to live better lives ourselves?
Whatever the reasons for our attachment to memoir, it’s a phenomenon that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. The genre has been around since St. Augustine wrote his thirteen-volume Confessions around A.D. 400. In one form or another, memoir lives on today—in the journal entry, blog, confessional e-mail, or Facebook post you wrote an hour ago. Forgive us, Descartes; today’s philosophy of existence might best be expressed thusly: “I overshare, therefore I am.”
People who love memoirs claim that the telling of the true-life story is the contemporary incantation of oral history, an invaluable contribution to the enlightenment, the collective consciousness, perhaps even the evolution of the species.
People who don’t love memoirs say the genre is a scourge upon the human race, a playing field upon which attention-craving, sensationalistic, crass, and craven narcissists head-butt and navel-gaze their way to the bestseller lists.
Between the covers of this book, twenty very different memoirists share their very different reasons for doing what they do and their sometimes different, sometimes overlapping approaches to the controversies that surround the genre.
“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,” says Cheryl Strayed. “I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”
“I actually never intended to publish a book,” says Ishmael Beah, whose bestselling A Long Way Gone describes his life as a twelve-year-old soldier in Sierra Leone. “Writing [became] for me a way to prove my existence.”
“Some of us are the designated rememberers,” The Death of Santini author Pat Conroy told me. “That’s why memoir interests us—because we’re the ones who pass the stories.”
“I have never written memoir by choice,” says Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying. “Each time I write memoir, in short or long form, something happens that compels me to do it—something that feels pressing and urgent, something that there is no other way to express.”
How does memoir writing differ from journal keeping? Should a memoir be a work of art, produced for the benefit of the reader—or a cathartic writing experience for the benefit of the author?
“People want to believe that a memoirist has simply opened a vein and bled on the page,” according to Ayelet Waldman. “That’s a diary. A diary can be emotionally satisfying, it can be great therapy, but it’s not necessarily good writing.”
“A memoir is not simply stringing together the five or ten good stories you’ve been telling about your wacky childhood for your whole life,” Nick Flynn says.
But A. M. Homes says she wrote a memoir about her adoption “to organize the information and the experience—to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.”
When I asked the writers about the morality of memoir—whether memoirists are obligated to protect the privacy of the loved (and not-loved) ones in their lives—emotions ran high.
Sue Monk Kidd said that writing memoir is “a dance between being true to my need to write authentically and my responsibility to those around me not to cross over into their private hearts and extract something that doesn’t belong to me.”
Edmund White said, “Memoir should be extremely honest and personal. It should show the author for who he is, warts and all . . . A memoirist’s contract with the reader is that you’re telling the truth and nothing but the truth. That requires telling everything there is to say about everyone involved.”
“What I worried about most, writing the memoir,” said Kate Christensen, “was offending people or causing anyone pain. I’m used to writing about invented characters. Writing about real people was a huge stretch—a leap into new territory.”
“At first I was worried that my book would be really exploitive,” Anne Lamott said. “But then my editor said, ‘It won’t be exploitive if you don’t exploit anyone.’”
Whatever your thoughts and feelings about this provocative, evocative genre, whether you’re a producer or a consumer of memoir, or neither, or both, I hope you’ll benefit from the literary, emotional, psychological, and moral self-examination that’s on display in these pages.
In their own books, the memoirists included here bare all. In this book, they bare all about baring all, excavating the personal and professional agonies and ecstasies, moral conundrums, and psychological battles that come with the job.
There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn’t until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country.
—Opening, A Long Way Gone, 2007
In 1993, when Ishmael Beah was twelve years old, antigovernment soldiers invaded his village of Mogbwemo, Sierra Leone. Along with many other boys, he fled the village, spent months wandering the countryside, and was then conscripted into the government army at age thirteen. In 1996, after witnessing and committing unthinkable acts of war, Ishmael was rescued by UNICEF, which helped him with his rehabilitation and reinsertion into normal life. He was later adopted by an American woman, Laura Simms, and found a home and a school—the United Nations International School—in New York City.
From there Ishmael made his way to Oberlin College, where he studied political science and took some creative writing courses with the novelist Dan Chaon. By the time he graduated in 2004, Ishmael had a draft of the memoir that would become A Long Way Gone, his account of his years as a child soldier.
The book was an immediate hit; it has since sold more than 1.5 million copies. But its publication was not without controversy. In early 2009, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian investigated Ishmael’s story and said that his account was exaggerated. The paper claimed that the attack on Ishmael’s village had happened in 1995, not 1993 as described in ALong Way Gone. Since Ishmael had been rescued by UNICEF in 1996, the Australian claimed, he’d been a child soldier for months, not years.
Three days after the article appeared, Ishmael published a rebuttal, saying, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong . . . Sad to say, my story is all true.”
Ishmael’s publisher, Sarah Crichton at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, stood firmly behind him. His adoptive mother said, “I knew this was not fraudulent. The last thing that Ishmael would want is to lie about what he cannot forget.”
For Ishmael, being accused of lying is small potatoes, compared to living with those memories.
“If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself,” he has said. “I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can.”
Birthday: November 23, 1980
Born and raised: Born in Mattru Jong and raised in Mogbwemo, Bonthe District, Sierra Leone
Home now: New York, New York
Family: Married to Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda; one daughter
Schooling: United Nations International School; Oberlin College, BA in political science
Day job: Author and activist; volunteer for UNICEF and Human Rights Watch
THE COLLECTED WORKS
A Long Way Gone, 2007
Radiance of Tomorrow, 2014
Why I write about myself
I do not consider myself a memoirist. I consider myself a writer who happened to be introduced as a writer to the world through a memoir, a nonfictional book. I actually never intended to publish a book.
Prior to making the commitment to write my memoir, writing had become for me a way to prove my existence. Apart from my passport, I had no physical objects or documentation to do so.
I remember when I began applying to schools in the United States. I was asked to provide a report card. “I don’t have one,” I would say. Often the response was “Well, everyone has a report card.” I would chuckle and correct them. “I’m from Sierra Leone, and I don’t have one.”
When I started high school in New York, I wrote an essay titled “Why I Do Not Have a Report Card.” I got a glimpse then that my core reason for writing would be to expose people to certain realities and hope to deepen their understanding of the other, of places that may seem far away.
A sense of urgency made me do it
The story of A Long Way Gone was the first story I needed to tell with urgency. There were other stories within me, but this one possessed me.
Writing it also came out of several frustrations. I felt the need to correct the way my people and my country were portrayed. Each time I said to someone that I was from Sierra Leone, they responded by telling me about the horrors of the civil war, as though it had always been that way and as if war was the only identity of my country. There was no context, and more important, no human context, in the way my people were presented. Here I was, a young man living away from home, carrying a splinter of the very story that was misrepresented. So I had to do something about it, using my small part of a much larger story.
Writing as if each book might be my last
Whether I am writing nonfiction or fiction, I always write about things that are meaningful to me—situations that speak to my being. I approach each piece of writing, whether it’s a short story, a book, or a novel, as though it were the first and last story I will write.
There was risk involved
I worried that people wouldn’t want to read my memoir because their initial response to the subject matter was only a reaction to the violence, the kind they hear or read about, without the human context and framework. That framework has the power to make a person understand that there is nowhere in the world where people will choose violence if they have other viable ways of living.
My aspiration was to show how everyone is capable of violence if you happen to find yourself in circumstances that propel you toward violence as a way to live. I wanted to show that no one can decide ahead of time whether you will embrace violence or not until you are in a certain situation.
I very much wanted to show the realities of war. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by the need to be careful not to write something that could be mistaken as an endorsement or a celebration of violence.
I was fueled by the importance of putting the human face on war, the worst kind of war, and showing the strength of human beings to outlive life’s worst circumstances. I wanted to show that beauty and hope can exist even when there is no reason for hope, even when it seems all has been lost.
Protecting the innocent
For those people in my memoir who were alive and I could find, I explained to them what I was embarking on and that I would present them from my point of view. Those who weren’t comfortable, I used only their first names.
As to my own privacy, I just wrote from how I thought about things as a child, in sort of a matter-of-fact way and unapologetically. I had to return to how I felt about things as a child, as a boy, not as the young man I had become by the time I wrote the book.
I knew, though, from the beginning, that I wouldn’t share everything. It isn’t possible to write about everything, and some things I needed to keep for my family and myself—the deepest intimacies of my emotions and experiences. My desire was to take moments of my life to make a point, and that is what I did.
I feel satisfied that I succeeded in getting across what war does to human beings and the possibility of recovering. Those who haven’t been in war can never truly understand it, but I made them come as close as possible to that reality.
Being called a liar is not pleasant
When certain people in the media accused me of making up parts of my story and exaggerating the length of my time as a soldier, it was frustrating and annoying to argue with them about it. Those “reporters” weren’t in my country during the war and had very little understanding of what happened and very little understanding of war in general. I found their claims ridiculous and unfounded and hence they never went anywhere. I stand fully by what I wrote.
When I wrote the memoir, I relied on the best of my memories and I took out anything I doubted. My memoir was fact-checked. Memoirs don’t just get published. Excerpts from my book were published in The New York Times Magazine before the book was released, and the magazine did its own fact-checking.
So when certain people started with their nonsense I just laughed. I wasn’t a journalist who inserted himself in war to experience it and therefore had notepads, cameras, and the like to record what happened. Unfortunately, they approached my story from that angle, as if I had cameras and notepads with me the whole time.
The media were caught up with this idea of the singular truth about the war in my country. Well, any sensible person would know that when several people experience the same event, they remember different aspects of that event. Still, all of their recollections would be truthful to what occurred. The guy standing with his back to me when I was shooting, as I was during the war, would have a very different telling of that event than mine. And yet both stories would be true to that experience.
Lying is not right, either
The question of morality arises in a memoir only if the writer deliberately tells a story of deceit or chooses to blatantly portray people through outright lies for purposes of slander and sensation. It’s also immoral for the narrator to paint him- or herself in a saintly light.
Of course, when you write about people, you always write your version of the truth about them. You write about how you see them, not how they view themselves. Otherwise they would be the authors.
As a writer, with any story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you make choices to show certain aspects of your characters to make a point or to introduce an idea or to hint at what you want your readers to understand.
Ishmael Beah’s Wisdom for Memoir Writers
Often, whenever I come up against anything painful or difficult, my mind escapes to food. I am sure I am far from alone in this. Even if I’m too upset to eat, just the thought of a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup is warm and cozy and savory and comforting.
—Opening, Blue Plate Special, 2013
Kate Christensen writes novels, memoirs, magazine features, essays, reviews, and a blog. She narrates some of her novels in the voices of men; others as women. Her memoir Blue Plate Special began as an ode to food and evolved into an exposé of her violent father and her childhood sexual assault. She’s an unrepentant sensualist whose love story with her twenty-years-younger boyfriend—and his family’s New Hampshire farmhouse; the beautiful meals they cook and the beautiful wine they drink in the 1860s house they remodeled together in Portland, Maine; and their winter walks through the woods with their beloved dog, Dingo—runs through her writings like an upbeat background hum.
Kate Christensen can write a character who will make you yell at the book in your hand and she can write a plate of pasta puttanesca that will make you want to take a bite of the page. Her books and her life are a celebration of edible, emotional, quotidian joy. And they are the redemption story of a woman who slept with the wrong men, drank too many drinks, and lived a whole lot of pain.
Lucky us: we’re the beneficiaries of all of it.
Birthday: August 22, 1962
Born and raised: Berkeley, California
Home now: Portland, Maine
Family: Boyfriend, Brendan
Schooling: Reed College; Iowa Writers’ Workshop
Day job: Nope
THE COLLECTED WORKS
In the Drink, 1999
Jeremy Thrane, 2001
The Epicure’s Lament, 2004
The Great Man, 2007
The Astral, 2011
Blue Plate Special, 2013
How to Cook a Moose, 2015
Essays, Columns, Reviews (Partial Listing)
The New York Times Book Review
O, The Oprah Magazine
The Wall Street Journal
Food & Wine
Why I write about myself
My reasons for writing memoir and fiction are the same. I’m hoping to give my readers connection, comfort, reassurance, and, of course, entertainment.
I’ve been a “self-chronicler” from a very early age, and I’ve always done that kind of writing alongside writing fiction. When I was seven or eight I was always writing made-up stories, and I also kept diaries. This journal keeping intensified when I was sixteen, as it did for many of us. It hit a peak in my midtwenties, then tapered off for a number of years until I stopped. I haven’t kept a journal since my midthirties.
All this writing about my own life as it happened—hundreds if not thousands of pages through the years—is remarkable chiefly for its bulk. When I can bear to revisit this outpouring, I’m struck by how analytical I was able to be about my predicaments and struggles while remaining helpless to change anything about any of them.
In hindsight, I think my journal keeping was a colossal exercise in honing and developing my own point of view. What it wasn’t was an agent of self-improvement or a catalyst for change. Keeping journals wasn’t therapeutic. It didn’t cause or encourage me to better my lot. I practiced a kind of mindful exegesis of daily life, including the vicissitudes of my mostly problematic sexual and romantic relationships and friendships and family ties.
I poured out my fears; laid out my plans, hopes, and dreams; and was unrelenting, unsparing, in my self-loathing chroniclings of my own failings. All this navel-gazing is virtually unreadable now—at least it is to me. I wrote things as they were, and I stayed stuck. It’s frustrating to read them for that reason. I want to yell, “Get out of there! Quit that job! Leave that guy! Get a new apartment! Speak up!” It’s a bit like watching a horror movie and wishing you could tell the girl not to go into the abandoned house alone at night, but of course she does it anyway.
Almost despite myself, while I was writing so feverishly all those decades, I was improving. Not my life, but my writing. I was creating a voice, an “I”—as well as practicing a writerly detachment from emotion—an ability to record and relay extreme states in dispassionate, clean prose. This served me well when I began writing novels for real. Looking back on all that journal keeping, I see it now as a writerly form of finger exercises—études and scales for the aspiring novelist.
I had a parallel passion, also begun at a young age: reading the published diaries, journals, autobiographies, and biographies of famous people. I was enthralled by anyone else’s existence. I was hooked on the things that made a life both singular and universal. I loved reading about both men and women, but the lives of remarkable women gave me an added thrill, because they made me feel as if I had a ringside seat to what I might accomplish someday if I paid attention to the gritty courage of Harriet Tubman, the determination of invincible Louisa May Alcott, the passion and intelligence of Anne Frank. I loved and read them all—Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Eleanor Roosevelt—every biography I could get my mitts on as a kid, and on into my adult years, too.
Food writing is life writing
When I was in my late twenties, living in the proverbial East Village rat hole, always broke and always hungover, and insomniacal with anxiety about the future, nothing was more comforting to me than the intersection of food, life, and language. This is how I discovered, and became obsessed with, M. F. K. Fisher and her brilliant chronicles of a life in food. She was my gateway drug to the “foodoir,” as I call it—the writings of people as diverse as Laurie Colwin and Nicolas Freeling, who wrote books about life through the prism of food.
Write memoir or hide. You can’t do both
Just as reading novels made me want to write them, reading food memoirs made me want to write one myself. But I understood instinctively that I had to wait until my life had a story, an arc, a shape that would lend itself to this sort of enterprise. From my late twenties on, I intended to write a food book as soon as I was ready. Meanwhile, I wrote novels and taught myself to cook and went out to as many restaurants of every kind as I could, at home in New York and on my travels with my then husband. I immersed myself in food and writing and waited for the intersection of the two to happen. During that time, I was wildly unhappy, lonely, and angry, and I was suppressing these things to try to stay in my untenable marriage. It’s impossible to write about yourself when you’re hiding.
As my fiftieth birthday approached, I recognized that I had become, against all odds, settled, happy, and fulfilled. This hadn’t happened by accident. I had made it happen by making difficult choices that led me to it. With much grief and a sense of dark failure, I’d left my marriage. Seven months later, I fell in love with a man twenty years younger than I was but in every other way my perfect match and soul mate. I found myself blessed with a circle of trustworthy, amazing friends. My family had gradually reintegrated after many years of rifts and sorrows.
With Brendan, I left New York and traveled around the world, staying in his family’s empty farmhouse in the White Mountains as a home base. We wound up buying a house of our own in Portland, Maine, in 2011. In the months before I turned fifty, I felt immense relief, as if I had come through trials and dangers and, with difficulty and perseverance, landed in a calm, happy, safe, stable life with a man I adored and friends I trusted and the work life I had always striven for. It felt like a happy ending to my long and protracted youth.
And then, suddenly, the itch to write about my own life came back with a vengeance. This time, though, I wanted to write for a readership. I didn’t feel the need anymore for private analysis or inchoate ramblings. I wanted to offer artfully shaped essays to readers. I wanted to connect with readers in the course of figuring out, in writing, how my own life was both singular and universal. Above all, I wanted to offer comfort to people who were going through what I’d just come through—years of loneliness.
Writing the memoir was excruciatingly hard—harder than my novels, even. It didn’t feel self-indulgent or like wallowing at all. Sometimes it felt like trying to carve a big rough piece of stone with a dull penknife.
What makes it all worth it is hearing from a reader who took some solace from my book. When that happens, I’m so happy.
Writing the foodoir
In the winter of 2011, just after Brendan and I moved to Portland, Maine, I started a blog about food, which quickly became about my own life as well, both the present and the past. And it grew into a food memoir. In writing it, I wanted to repay the debt of comfort and reassurance I felt I owed M. F. K. Fisher and Laurie Colwin. I wrote it for insomniacs at three in the morning who were wondering how they’d get through the next day. And I wrote it for my past self, that girl who promised herself she’d write a book someday.
My relationship with food has been anything but smooth. In addition to pleasure and joy, I’ve gone through eating disorders, weight swings, hunger, gluttony, alcohol abuse, poverty, and manic loss of appetite. So the memoir had to delve into the darkness. I wanted to lay it all bare as truthfully as I could without being overly analytical. I wanted to show my life in all its messy complexity, its many ups and downs, without trying to codify or label anything. To someone as habitually overly analytical as I’ve always been, it wasn’t easy. But I think the book I wrote is far more visceral than cerebral, as a foodoir should be.
The “I’s” have it
Strangely, I don’t feel that writing fiction and writing memoir are altogether so different at their core.
The “I” of Blue Plate Special and the “I’s” of In the Drink and The Epicure’s Lament are all me, and they’re all not me. Maybe all writing is autobiographical, to some extent. What makes fiction and nonfiction different, of course, is that in fiction, I’m imagining a life that’s parallel to my own but not my own. In nonfiction, I’m recounting, remembering, and shaping a version of my own.
Once the work of memory was done and I had assembled a rough chronology, though, the next step was necessary detachment from the autobiographical “I.” That was what allowed me to draw on my novelistic experience and determine what this voice would be, what the shape of her story would be, and how the chronology I’d resurrected would be told. These things are all novelistic questions as well as nonfictional. They’re both about storytelling.
A memoir is not a diary
I’ve written six novels in the past fifteen years. I’ve had an enormous amount of fun couching my life fictionally in those novels, extrapolating from direct experience as fuel for my imaginative fire. I’m relishing my newfound ability to transcend the self-absorption and artlessness of journal writing into a coherent narrative, to shape the raw material of my life without denying any of its fuckedupness or my own culpability and fallibility. And that ability came directly from many years of writing fiction. The fictional “I” gave rise to the nonfictional one and enabled me to write directly about myself, as a character rather than an unmitigated, diaristic first-person voice.
Blue Plate Special was the most difficult book I’ve ever written, as well as the easiest. The material was all there. I just had to find the thread, weave it through, and tie it together at the end. No big deal. Ha! It was agony a lot of the time. Ecstasy the rest of the time. Such a roller coaster. I kept vacillating between “I can’t do this, it’s too hard” and “God, this is fun.”
The joys and travails of removing the fictional veil
Excerpted from "Why We Write About Ourselves"
Copyright © 2016 Meredith Maran.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
"Be Unafraid": Edwidge Danticat on Fiction and Memoir
From blog post to status update, we live in an era in which the forms of written self-expression have never been so manifold. But for the writer of memoir, the questions and challenges remain just as they have been since the era of Montaigne: what constitutes the "truth" of a life? When a writer's days are reshaped on the page to creative narrative, how close should the resulting story map to the reality? And what calls a writer to turn her own experiences into art? These and many other questions are the subject of Meredith Maran's Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. Writers including Cheryl Strayed, Pat Conroy, Jesmyn Ward, James McBride, Meagan Daum, and others reflect in these conversations on the most intimate and fraught of literary forms.
For the Barnes & Noble Review, award-winning novelist and memoirist Edwidge Danticat (a contributor to Why We Write About Ourselves) spoke with Maran about the places where fiction and memoir intersect, where they diverge, and how novice writers should approach the form.
Meredith Maran: Most of your work is fiction, but you've also written the memoir Brother, I'm Dying and essays for several collections. How do you decide which material to use for a novel or short story versus a memoir or personal essay?
Edwidge Danticat: I know this might sound silly, but I let the material decide. When I write nonfiction, there's an urgency that makes me want to write it, something I need to get out of my head immediately, something I need to understand a lot better than I do. Though I can't write nonfiction really fast I'm not very good at responding immediately I still write nonfiction a lot faster than I write fiction. Once I have a thread of a thought, a first line, or a clear idea of what I want to say, the rest follows rather quickly, even in long form. Fiction takes a lot longer. And the more fiction I write the longer fiction takes, because I am trying not to repeat myself, not to say the same thing over and over. There's less of a risk of repeating yourself in nonfiction because often you're writing about or reacting to something that's out there in the world, something that's changing you or has already changed you, even if a little. Nonfiction tends to be more personal, more cathartic for me, even though fiction has that element too.
MM: Is memoir a popular genre or an anomaly in your native Haiti? Do you face any particular challenges, writing about yourself as a cross-cultural citizen of both Haiti and the US?
ED: When I was growing up in Haiti, poetry was used as a form of memoir. Poetry was probably the most direct way the writers I knew of spoke of their personal feelings and things that were going on in their lives. It was poetry first, then the novel. Now younger writers are writing more memoirs. There were a few memoirs, essays, and essay collections published after the 2010 earthquake. Dany Laferrière, a Haitian writer who lives in Canada now, has written what he calls a long autobiography over a dozen books. He writes in this hybrid form that's part memoir and part fiction, and sometimes reads like poetry. I really like that. There has always been a feeling in my own family that you shouldn't talk openly about everything. Part of that comes from my parents and older relatives growing up under a dictatorship. In those circumstances, self-revelation was not too helpful, so that's something my parents have always kept with them. So writing too much about myself is somewhat challenging for me. It feels both hyper vulnerable and dangerous somehow.
MM: Do you plan to write more fiction or nonfiction going forward?
ED: I hope to write in every possible genre. I am only half joking when I say that. I like writing in different genres. That keeps a kind of excitement in the process for me. It helps me grow. I have always felt a great sense of excitement about every project I've ever undertaken, no matter what the genre. So I hope to explore different genres as I go on, especially ones where I feel less surefooted and less sure of myself. I don't want to get too complacent, too comfortable, even if I initially fail.
MM: You got an MFA in creative writing from Brown in 1993. How did that and how does that affect your writing and your career? Do you recommend an MFA program for aspiring writers?
ED: I am really glad I got an MFA, but MFA programs are not always easy, especially for writers of color. Brown's MFA program was, is, a very experimental program, so working with writers like Robert Coover and Meredith Steinbach and the other writers who were in my workshops certainty helped me to learn to push the envelope a little bit. What I most liked was having those two years to concentrate on my writing, to basically live alone and just write and then see some folks in a workshop once a week. That was a great gift. As was being around the poets and playwrights who were in the community. People like Aisha Rahman and C. D. Wright, both of whom have unfortunately recently passed away. Knowing them and the other writers I met in and out of class was really amazing. Seeing a writer's life in progress, observing up close their love and dedication to their craft was really a great model for me. But I wouldn't advise anyone to go into debt for an MFA program. Between the class dynamics and the instructors, you never know what you're going to get. It's great if you get funding and help to do it. Otherwise, you can try to find groups and workshops and conferences and other types of nurturing communities and replicate that same thing for less.
MM: Your MFA thesis was published as a novel and became an Oprah's Book Club Selection. How did being tapped by Oprah affect your writing and your career?
ED: Well, more people were able to read my work thanks to Oprah's Book Club. It was a really great gift in that sense, to be a twenty-nine-year-old writer and have your book on Oprah's Book Club was just incredible. Oprah introduced me to readers that are still reading me today. That's very special. And I will always be grateful to her for that.
MM: What was the best thing and the worst thing that happened as a result of publishing your memoir, Brother, I'm Dying?
ED: Nothing bad happened. I felt like I had to write that book. I needed to write it and I got to write it. Of all the books I have written this is the one that feels the most necessary, the one that if no one else ever reads it will remain central to my life, to my family narrative. It's the book that my children and their children will read to learn about the family, so that means a great deal to me. Brother, I'm Dying was the first nonfiction book chosen for the NEA's Big Read program. (You can find a link to the program online). This means that I meet a lot of people who talk about my family with me like we're old friends. I love that. It's the best outcome of writing this type of memoir, that people feel so intimately connected to you that you feel like family.
MM: Do you have any advice for memoir writers?
ED: Be bold. Be fearless. Be unafraid. At least while you're writing the memoir. That's what I've had to keep telling myself to be able to write about myself. Let everything out, even if you take it out later. Censoring yourself during the initial writing, first draft stage might keep you from writing other things. Tell your own truth and keep going until you reach the point where you feel spent, where you feel like you've gotten out everything you want to write for that particular project. Then go back and edit them until you get as close as possible to the tone and content of what you want to say.
January 25, 2016