Memoir-writers would appear to have it easy. After all, whom do they know best, in theory, but themselves? The key to this question is “in theory.” Hollywood and sports stars can sail by with superficial “and then this bad thing happened, but I learned a lot” memoirs, because they are, well, stars, and in some misguided sense, we already feel we know them. The rest of us have to dig way deeper.
Aspiring memoirists may be encouraged to expose their most “gut-wrenching secrets” right up front. Chapter one. Even page one. But parading a set of difficult experiences—drug addiction, infidelity, abuse—across the literary stage like cardboard scenery is not sufficient. We’ve all read that. Seen the movie. More than once. The writer’s unique persona and individual reaction to these stock situations are what makes a new version of this play worth mounting. It may take a few—even quite a few—pages to create the character for whom these traumatic experiences have meaning. Writers who merely put their emotional debris on display treat readers like voyeurs. Less experienced writers, encouraged to reveal their darkest moments, may not have the self-understanding that is as much a part of the story as the drug-addled sex in the seedy hotel room.
Author and writing teacher Susan Shapiro in her recent essay, “Make Me Worry You’re Not O.K.,” supports the idea of immediately sharing emotional traumas, of hooking readers early in order to make readers care. Another memoir teacher and literary agent—Brooke Warner—responded to Shapiro with her own essay, “Memoir Is Not the Trauma Olympics.” Warner counters that “real misery memoir works when you drip in the painful stuff little by little.”
Following these two essays, journalism teacher Katie Roiphe wrote “This Is How Your Write a Memoir” for Slate. Her common-sense advice ends with the observation that “expressing yourself is not enough.” Just because an event is true, doesn’t mean it can be written about without the care and attention to salient detail of any other literary endeavor. In other words, it’s hard work after all.