This blog was featured on 05/28/2019
Why She Writes Memoir
Written by
She Writes
May 2019
Written by
She Writes
May 2019

In our Why She Writes segments we take a deep dive into particular genres and the women who write in them. From romance to science fiction, nonfiction and historical fiction, we are always intrigued by the reasons why authors chose their genres. Learn more about why brilliant memoirists like Tara Westover, Roxane Gay, Michelle Obama and more chose to write in this compelling and raw genre.

Tara Westover

Tara Westover received immense praise for her 2018 memoir Educated in which she discloses details about her life as a young homeschooled girl who eventually broke out of her family's mold and pursued an education and life of her own. In an interview with Parade Magazine, she disclosed how she felt about her memoir and the story being distributed to the masses: 

It’s the principle of storytelling that universal is best told in the specific. When you’re writing it, never feels like that. It just felt that this is incredibly specific to me and no one would ever care about this. I remember thinking when I was writing this that the book would really do well for little girls who worked in junk yards and never went to school. For everybody else, it would be a bit inaccessible.

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is a name that readers everywhere are familiar with. From her works of fiction to her impactful and inspiring memoirs, she's a writer many look up to. During an interview with The Guardian, Gay opened up about her experiences writing memoir and how it gave her power over the tragedies she has faced in life: 

I think writing always gives us control over the things that we can’t actually control in our lives, so taking control of the narrative of my body as a public space was absolutely helpful in terms of thinking about my relationship to my body.

The Guardian then asked if she had any personal revelations while writing Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body:

It started as a process of writing what I know to be true and it became a process of revelation. I was able to make some realisations about myself that previously I hadn’t made and it really forced me to confront my relationship not only with my body, but with food. I mostly saw how unkind I had been to myself when my body has actually gotten me through quite a lot in life. And recognising that, in many ways, I was holding on to the weight for the wrong reasons and the only one that was really hurting was myself.

Michelle Obama 

Michelle Obama joined the memoir game in fall 2018 with her debut publication Becoming. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Michelle opened up about whether or not she was scared to write about her private life: 

Actually, no, because here’s the thing that I realized: People always ask me, “Why is it that you’re so authentic?” “How is it that people connect to you?” And I think it starts because I like me. I like my story and all the bumps and bruises. I think that’s what makes me uniquely me. So I’ve always been open with my staff, with young people, with my friends. And the other thing, Oprah: I know that whether we like it or not, Barack and I are role models.

Ariel Levy

Writer Ariel Levy took the world by storm with her 2017 memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. Having written the book as an extension of an essay published by The New Yorker, she explains to Long Reads the process of turning that essay into a full-blown memoir:

I’m going to have to give you a weird answer because the truth is I don’t really know. The essay was the least conscious writing process I have ever had. I didn’t think much about it—it just came out of my fingers, if that makes sense. It just kind of came to me.

But in the book, I had a story I wanted to tell: a coming-of-age story. A story about growing up and realizing how little control we have, or I had. So I structured it that way, and there were themes that I would sort of pull from the essay and from other things I’ve written and work from, but those were more like jumping off points, if that makes sense.

Dani Shapiro

Writer and teacher Dani Shapiro is one of the most popular names in the memoir world. In an interview with Musing, she talks about how her 2019 memoir Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love came to be and how it differed from other memoirs she's written:

When I made the discovery about my father, it was days – literally days – after I had finished Hourglass, my last book. It was such crazy timing – timing I now view as quite miraculous, because if I had discovered the truth of my identity while still working on Hourglass, I would have had to put that book aside. This journey was one of complete, total absorption. It was literally the story of me, of how I came to be.

My editor and I have joked that Inheritance is the book I was born to write, but in fact there’s truth in that. I began researching, reporting, taking notes almost instantly. I was propelled by the concern that most of the people who might know anything about the history of my conception, or who had known my parents, would have been very old, if they were still living. And so I began calling folks in their late eighties, early nineties. Family friends, relatives, doctors, rabbis, experts — I was in a state of shock, but fueled by a profound need to learn everything I possibly could. I began writing pretty quickly too — attempting to stitch together a narrative as it was unfolding. Of course, as I always tell my students, this is impossible: to write from the center of a trauma. But I decided that those rules didn’t apply to me. When I was about two hundred pages into the manuscript, I went on book tour for Hourglass and had to put it aside for a while. When I returned to it, I re-read it and my heart sank. I threw those pages away and started anew, this time with just enough distance to be able to tell the story.

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