By Kate Jenkins, a writer, editor, and publisher. Her work has appeared in Forbes, Refinery 29, Innovations Journal, and others. She’s also the founder/editor-in-chief of The Intentional Quarterly, a print literary magazine dedicated to emerging creatives and to the exploration of identity and purpose.
The consensus seems to be that entering any bookstore these days feels like stepping into a group therapy session. Copies of Life Has Been Hard for Me, Too: The Story of a Talk Show Host, Confessions of an Egomaniac, Finding Myself After My Messy and Unfair Divorce, and My Super Interesting World Travels gather round, imploring you to understand their struggles, validate their existence. Literature has always been an exercise in empathy, but our recent obsession with memoir has many critics attempting to draw the line between deeply humanizing non-fiction works and books that are primarily dedicated either to whining, gloating, or asinine navel-gazing.
Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupçon of meretriciousness: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)—spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends—motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention.
But even as we critically reject trash memoir, its popularity grows exponentially. In this particular moment of literary history, Mendelsohn tells us we’re experiencing a “cycle of memoir proliferation and anti-memoir backlash.” Many critics insinuate that the proper explanation for this phenomenon is that we know better—just as we know better when it comes to gossip or reality TV—and yet, we just can’t help ourselves.
Perhaps the most despicable aspect of trash memoir is that its confessional writing so often attempts to establish moral high ground in an environment of decidedly limited opinions; and writers who, in the context of these vacuums, eagerly throw friends and family under the bus for the sake of telling “their truth” leave the ethical reader with more than a few questions about the validity of ruining lives for the sake of “art.” And of course we can’t forget the ever-problematic concerns about the roles of objective truth, of memory, and of sensationalism in writing memoir. James Frey taught us well.
At their best, though, memoirs can be richly insightful peeks into the lives of others. It might not even be too garish to say that they can expand our worldview and our sense of humanity; storytelling makes us human, even if it doesn’t always make us better humans. Narcissistic as the genre might be, it often produces work that even in its focus on the self carries significant relevance for a broad audience—whether that’s purposeful or otherwise—and offers up some unique perspective from which to view our own lives. It’s unfair to assert that memoir is inevitably frivolous, or even to assert that the subgenre of memoir primarily concerned with heartbreak, self-discovery, or so-called “first-world problems” is. Isn’t it a writer’s craft to articulate what the rest of us can’t about our shared experiences? Some writers construct fictional characters to accomplish that goal, and others of us draw from our own lives.
“Given the monstrosities that memoir-writing has produced, must we admit that the genre is unseemly?” Judith Shulevitz ponders in her NYT piece “My True Story,” as she sets up her defense of memoir. “Does our passion for everyone else’s most intimate experiences prove that we’re voyeurs? If so, maybe there’s something to be said for voyeurism. We are social creatures, after all, and memoirizing is a social act.”
Perhaps we can think of memoir in much the same way we think about a hammer: used the right way, it can build you a gleaming city. But in the wrong hands, it can destroy everything that is good—leaving behind a shitpile that only the crudest will deign to call art.
Recently I’ve come across a good deal of writing advice that all goes somewhat like this: “No one cares about your story. No one cares about your struggle. Shut the fuck up.” As a non-fiction writer, I find this is a little jarring. And more than that, it’s clearly not accurate; perched at the top of bestseller lists are dozens of self-absorbed stories that bore critics to tears (or worse). Millions of beach readers is not nobody. But I’ll admit these literary curmudgeons are onto something. Non-fiction writers could all stand to think long and hard about the worth of adding their individual contribution to our national archives of vanity.
So okay, can we put together some advice for writing memoir that’s actually useful? I asked this question, and others, of Philippa Hughes, Pink Line Project founder and long-time champion of DC arts, who is now at work on her first book. We put our heads together for a moment to consider.
“Memoir” has become a dirty word, calling up images of bourgeois divorcées relating the unspeakable pain and isolation in the upper crust of society. But you are writing a memoir! And the concept is actually really good!
I actually have two projects going at once, and I’m trying to figure out how to tie them together into one memoir. One is sort of this family history. My mother’s family is Vietnamese; they escaped from North Vietnam to South Vietnam in 1954 when the communists took over. They were killing and torturing everyone who had land and money, and our family had these things. So they left everything behind for fear of their lives, including some of their family members. But when the communists came to South Vietnam, then they actually had to pick up and come to the US, starting over from nothing for the second time.
And on an unrelated personal note, last year I got cancer. But I don’t want to write about cancer, I want to write about what happened to me because of the cancer… what cancer gave me. It was the shittiest thing that ever happened, but it was also the most magical. Just, the ways in which it changed my perspective and strengthened my relationships. Steve Jobs said the best thing you can do for yourself is to remember that you’re going to die, and that has absolutely been true for me.
So I started thinking about how those two stories paralleled one another. I don’t know exactly how I’m building that out yet, or even if it’s possible, but I want to go deeper with that. I want to explore the difference between my struggles and theirs, because the changes in the way we communicate have really altered everything about our relationships and our support networks. My mother didn’t see her two sisters from 1954 until 2001, because they were so isolated from one another once she left. If it hadn’t been for the ability to text, to Facebook… the kinds of communications that people poo-poo… I just can’t imagine being without these tools. They saved me, emotionally. All the little connections I made strengthened me.
What do you think is the reason behind the contemporary obsession with memoir?
Maybe it’s because of the advent of the Internet and social media and reality TV. Suddenly we have the ability to expose everything about our lives, and we’re used to that. Memoir is maybe just reflecting that back. But I guess it’s a chicken-egg situation. Were those tools invented because of a larger cultural trend?
Right, is art imitating life or the other way around? It seems to me like a generational thing, to a certain extent. Millennials were raised with such an emphasis on individualism, on self-esteem, on “knowing themselves,” and all the little things that made them unique and special snowflakes.
Yes, and it’s a very American ideal that the individual is important and special. In most parts of the world, it’s about the society at large and it’s difficult to get out of your class once you’re in it. But conformity is a very anti-American thing.
But I’m not totally convinced that everybody does have a story to tell. That’s a very contemporary idea, that everyone has a story to tell. But just to play devil’s advocate, is that true? I went to visit my mother and dig for more information for my book, and even she asked me, “Why do you want to write about this? Will people find this interesting?” and that shocked me. But of course, for her, her story isn’t anything out of the ordinary. It’s all about the context. That’s a hard question to confront, though.
What do you think it is that makes you care about someone else’s story?
I have started to read tons of memoir, since I’m writing one, and I didn’t used to read memoir. What makes a good memoir is that the person found some universal truth in their story and presented it in some new way. I read Stephen King’s memoir, and I thought to myself, why would I care about this white trash guy who grew up in New England? But he really got this universal truth about people who grow up with nothing, but have ambition; they stick with what they believe in even when people reject them. These are things people can all relate to.
I’m really interested in how people become better, how they grow, how they improve. There are these memoirs where people tell you about crappy things that happened to them, and they’re funny, but where’s the growth? Every great story—fiction, film, whatever—has a character who faces an obstacle and overcomes it. The heroine has to overcome something and evolve and be a better person. With non-fiction, though, that’s tricky. Do people really ever change? That’s asking a lot, sometimes, to pull that element out of a true story. I suppose it’s about what you learned, and how you present that to the reader. I do think that’s what we’re aspiring to.
What you’re saying is that you have to think about yourself as a character; you have to fulfill the same requirements in the prose that a fiction character would.
Absolutely. We have to remember that what we’re writing is a form of entertainment, so we have to amuse people.
So when we think about the role of empathy in literature, it’s not simply that the book is a vehicle for the reader to experience empathy. The writer also has to have empathy for the reader in order to produce anything meaningful.
If you don’t keep the reader in mind, your book will fail. You’re not writing in a vacuum, you’re not writing for your therapy. Those memoirs that sound like personal therapy sessions… so annoying. It’s not just about your truth, it’s about a universal truth, and you have to connect into that. You have to care about everybody else, not just yourself.
And half of it is how you convey the story. It’s not just what happened to you, but it’s the craft of presenting it.
How much do you try to control the story, as a memoirist? Do you feel any pressure to have bizarre, crazy, eye-opening experiences so that you have something to write about? And what implication does that have for your life?
It’s so funny you say that. I’ve been seeing this great guy, wonderful guy, and I’ve been so happy. But I haven’t been writing as much. It makes me wonder if I’m too happy to write… I’ve got to shake stuff up. I think I need to be more tortured! I was probably a much better writer when I was battling cancer. You hear about these great writers who are boozers and drug addicts, and it’s almost like they do it on purpose to write better. But I just can’t create drama in my life like that.
What’s the universal truth you want to share through your memoir?
In the end, nothing else matters but your relationship with people. People often don’t spend enough time building those relationships until they have some catastrophic thing happen. A lot of people won’t have anything catastrophic happen to them… and that’s too bad, in a way. Hopefully I will never take my experience with cancer for granted.