“Why should anyone want to read about your life?”
I wanted to laugh. I probably would have, but the question came from my brother. (What brother in the world wouldn’t ask that question of a little sister writing a memoir?) And besides, he spoke in his usual earnest, really-wanting-to-know way.
So I explained . . . or tried to. I told him if I’m able to make this memoir work it won’t be because the content of my life is so fascinating. It certainly won’t be because I’m someone the world longs to gather scraps of information about. If the memoir works it will be because I have written my life the way I would write any story, with an eye to making my life matter.
I said all that, but there is something else I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the question he posed is the same one I have to push past every single time I sit down to write . . . Why should anyone want to read about my life?
I also didn’t say that some days I have no answer.
It’s the question every memoirist must confront, of course. But if you come from my family, particularly if you come from the father my brother and I shared, it’s a question that carries a particular sting. No one wants to know about you, my father would have told me, did tell me many times. No one.
The act of writing a memoir, he would have said, is egotistical, conceited, even repugnant.
My father was born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and though he cast off the conservative religion of his parents, our Puritan forbearers’ repugnance for any kind of personal display permeated his bones to the end of his days. “That fellow,” I once heard him say in disgust when he’d heard a man telling friends about his upcoming heart surgery, “was feeling really sorry for himself.”
So from the moment I took up this memoir, I’ve struggled to dismiss the very voice I now hear repeated through my brother.
It doesn’t, of course, require my father’s old-fashioned Puritanism to sustain such a critical view of memoir. It’s common to see memoirists as self-obsessed. But however hard we try to hide the truth, even from ourselves, aren’t we are all ego-driven vessels? Perhaps memoirists depart from the self-obsession we all live only by daring to shape the contents of our psyches into art.
No matter how often I explain all this to myself, though, I have yet to dispel my father’s question . . . or the disdain that accompanies it. Why should anyone want to read about my life? (The fact that Dad died many years ago hasn’t diluted his opinions inside my skull. It means only that they have never had a chance to mellow.)
So I keep asking the question . . . and trying to answer it, too. And this is what I say to myself: We write memoir, we read memoir for exactly the same reasons we write and read story, any story . . . because we long to break out of our own isolation, because we need, again and again, to rediscover our shared humanity.
Something I used to say to my students . . . “The difference between life and story is that life doesn’t come with meaning intact. It just happens, one damned thing after another. Story is selected in order to create meaning.”
Memoir, if it works, makes meaning out of a life.
Every time I sit down to order, select, reveal, I am searching for the truth of my own days. And if I can capture that search on the page, capture it honestly, then surely my words will, as well, give my readers a glimpse into their own hearts.
Which is the best reason I can think of, my brother, for writing about my life.