Gosh, I'm sick of everyone accusing memoirists of being narcissists. For the last couple of weeks, there was another uproar of essays that mix up memoirists with journalists—AND narcissists--again. The topic comes forward every few months: there seems to be the opinion that somehow it is bad manners, bad writing, or narcissistic to spill personal details in memoir. But what's confusing to me is that most of the people being criticized, or doing the criticizing, were journalists. It seems that memoir writing and journalism are being conflated as the same thing because writers in both camps create pieces called "personal essays." Just how personal they should be seems to be the topic of debate, as if there is a certain permissible and measurable amount of self-exposure that's allowed. Whatever goes beyond that very subjective mark seems to be the cause for mud-slinging at memoirists, and overly revealing journalists as well. It gets downright nasty out there in let's-critique-personal-writing-and-confession-land.
I've spent the week gathering some articles with the debate about confessional writing, journalism, and memoir. The journalists are upset at Susan Shapiro, who wrote the essay we've been talking about at SheWrites—Make Me Worry You're Not Okay, where she discusses the value of the "humiliation essay" to help reveal the usually hidden underbelly of the lives of her young students. According to her, she's teaching beginning writers in her journalism course to take more risks, to be brave enough to go beyond the shallow insights of an 18-year-old, which might explain her reason to choose that technique. She believes that she's getting them to dig deeper into their psyches beyond summer vacation essays, or what I wore to the prom, and is trying to get the students to probe deeper than a superficial view of their lives. But because she's teaching journalism, the journalists took aim at her about this technique.
Hamilton Nolan Journalism is not Narcissism fires a shot over the bow about the importance for journalists not to descend into the embarrassing and confessional use of "I." It seems that he, like other journalists, are very worried about the state of traditional journalism, and are angry that it's being ruined by personal essays and confessional writing, but it seems to me that they're confusing personal essays in journalism with personal essays that are meant to be brief memoir pieces. Stephen Elliot wrote in defense of memoirists on The Rumpus, thankfully arguing that "memoir does not actually equal narcissism. If you know journalists then you know there are many among them you would consider narcissists. And if you know memoirists, especially the really good ones, you know they are more curious than most about the world around them. I’m thinking of the few who I know well, Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn. These are all amazing listeners. They inhale their surroundings." Yay for Stephen.
In her piece In Defense of Confession, Jillian Lauren wrote, "I consider the process of confessional writing to be neither cathartic nor exhibitionistic. Rather, I think of it as a sacrifice." I love what she says in this piece, and I recommend that you read it. She's writing to support the idea of confession as a spiritual transcendent exercise, and I've often seen this to be true in my memoir writing classes, especially when write about painful events. The more the person writes, the more they are able to use story to transcend the pain, and move toward yet another version of the story, which in in the end might be the published version. I think we need to remember that when we're writing in class, we're not publishing, and that writing a memoir is a journey, a path that requires different stages of consciousness.
My colleague Brooke Warner, whose essay, Memoir is Not the Trauma Olympics, spoke from the point of view of a memoir coach and publisher. In her nuanced essay, she cautions against too much exposure or vomiting on the page, and I agree with her—sometimes it's just too much, and these kinds of pieces do need major editing, but the writer needs to start somewhere, and that early vomity version is far from the one to submit to publishers. Brooke has simply met too many writers who have done just that, and they aren't ready to publish, having submitted prematurely. Often they need a few more drafts to find the focus and the integration that makes a good story—which needs to deliver a universal message to the reader.
Many memoirists believe their job is to dig deep into self-identity, to explore the psyche, and dance on the "radical edge," a term coined by the poet David Whyte. Again, the writing is about exploring the inner self, and peeling the onion of consciousness. Back to narcissists—I don't think most could be accused of truly and deeply exploring the self for its own sake, of being vulnerable and brave in the archeology of being a person. A narcissist is a person with a fragile sense of self covered up with entitlement and self-importance. I wish people would learn what a narcissist actually is before wily-nily throwing the term around at memoirists! I encourage all memoirists just to get on with the business of writing, and to ignore the flames being thrown at you. Maybe what my memoir friend Jerry Waxler calls "the memoir revolution" is changing the landscape of personal writing, and it will never be the same. Let's stick around and find out!
I love what Sue William Silverman says about confessional writing in her book Fearless Confessions—A Writer's Guide to Memoir. "Memoir is not journalism. It's not supposed to be. When I write memoir, my goal isn't reportage. Nor do I make stuff up. My interpretation of events form a reality that is uniquely mine—my truth—how I understand my own life."
Joan Didion says, “I write to know what I think.” Learn from these masters, and keep writing, giving no thought to the naysayers. Listen to your own true voice, and take down what it says.