What Makes a Memoir "Too Personal"? What Makes it Good?
Richard Gilbert asks and answers an intriguing question today: What gives memoirists the right to share their stories?
As you read it, I invite you to compare your own experience as a reader and writer and then to comment at the end.
What gives memoirists the right to share their stories?
For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.—James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”
Once someone rejected something I’d written by saying it was “too personal.” This meant, I understood, not that it was too embarrassingly revealing but that it was only of interest to me personally. Not dramatic enough for a mass audience. Boring? Maybe.
Actually the person’s complete phrase was, “Still too personal.” At first the “still” threw me. Still? The #@*$! had never seen it before! Then I saw that what made the terse phrase a long, warm, personal rejection by New York publishing standards was the word “still.” It carried this meaning: it can become publishable by becoming of wider interest. (With more work. Of some kind. Or so I chose to interpret the rejection.)
How do we as writers know that our memoirs and personal essays are at all interesting to anyone else? What gives us the right to send them into the world? I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot. And I’m going to try to answer it even though I feel, deep down, that I can’t. But surely it’s worth trying because some among the legions of memoirists and essayists who are writing about their lives do wonder.
I didn’t myself, not when I started my memoir. I had nary a doubt about my story when I began writing seven years ago. I’m a different writer now, as I polish the book’s sixth version, than when I began. That guy, he took for granted that he had an interesting story to tell. He told a friend, I remember, “It’s the world’s problem if I’m no good. Not mine. Not if I enjoy doing this.” His technique maybe was shaky, but he was chipper and in good voice. Sometimes I really miss him. Had this issue occurred to him, which it wouldn’t—a doubt so foreign then—he’d have thrown out ideas with confidence. Not me. He’d been a successful journalist and book publisher. I’ve had some success publishing memoir and personal essays but have had many pieces rejected, too.
So my insights are tentative. It seems to me a memoir must have intrinsic interest, from drama or from appeal to the intellect. Alas, intrinsic interest is in the eye of the beholder. Second, I guess, the piece of writing must display technical mastery. Again, partly a matter of taste, since a bestseller for a New York trade house likely would have been rejected by an intellectual or academic press that favors complex, nonlinear structures. Third, perhaps, would be a certain depth of inquiry, which comes from perspective on the story as much as anything
These standards obviously are so partial, if not useless, that I seize on essays that explore this “So What?” issue. Most do so glancingly. But Brenda Miller did so incidently yet completely in her wonderful “A Case Against Courage in Creative Nonfiction,” which appeared in the AWP Writer’s Chronicle October/November 2011 edition. Miller emphasizes craft’s role in helping writers turn raw material from their lives into shapely stories whose form protects the writers, delights readers, and transforms experience into art. She writes:
I have great respect and admiration for those writers who are willing to risk something in their work; as we all know, powerful writing must risk something in one way or another. And it can certainly be daunting to speak when silence is so much more comfortable. But I’ve come to see that at some point—some crucial point—we need to shift our allegiance from experience itself, to the artifact we’re making of that experience on the page. To do so, we mustn’t find courage; we must, instead, become keenly interested in metaphor, image, syntax, and structure: all the stuff that comprises form. We are hammering out parallel plot lines, not plumbing the depths of our souls, but as a collateral to that technical work the soul does indeed get tapped and gushes forth.
Miller is writing about using difficult material, but her point about using “perspective to translate experience into artifact” is what I’m talking about: the primacy of craft in transforming material that’s too personal—in my critic’s sense: not widely interesting enough—into a narrative compelling for a general audience.
As I feel myself slipping into abstraction here, I think of what’s meant by writing that’s too “raw.” It may not be so much that there’s too much emotion but that it appears to be unprocessed, as if the writer has not yet learned from her experience. And so, the reader might wonder, what is the wisdom she has come to impart from her drama or trauma? The more reflective writer uses form—words, sentences, paragraphs, space breaks, structure—as well as musing to convey her message. So craft both makes things easier for the reader to absorb and gives him relationships among the essay’s elements, including the relationship between form and content, to ponder. If one’s story plods, maybe there’s too much connecting and extraneous material and not enough artifice and inquiry. The personal writer, in Miller’s words, must find “refuge in literary technique, in form, in metaphor.”
As editor of Bellingham Review, Miller spearheads the selection each year of a winner of the Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction from over 400 submissions. “[U]nfortunately,” she writes, “most of these pieces do bore us, most of them announcing themselves as yet another rendition of ‘this happened to me, I’m being brave, please listen.’ This earnestness makes us sigh and turn to the next piece in the stack. We don’t really want to hear what happened to this stranger.” Winners, she says, “usually focus not only upon their content, but on the nature of storytelling itself. They are not ‘trying’ to be brave. They are allowing the essay to be brave for them.”
Praising Sherry Simpson’s concise “Fidelity,” Miller notes that this memoir essay of marital woe opens with a bear. Simpson cuts back and forth in the braided narrative between the bear, which threatens her and her husband during a wilderness canoe trip, and her dissatisfaction with her mate. Miller writes:
I know it can seem a paradox: that writings imbued with qualities of what we recognize as “honest” or “brave” may actually be so strong because they focus away from that material directly. This refocus can be on form, yes, but it can also hone in on details that exist at an oblique slant to the center of the piece, such as that bear. These essays employ what I call “peripheral vision”: turning the gaze to focus on something that seems peripheral to the emotional center or ostensible topic. Instead of facing your “stuff” head on, you turn away from it, zero in on something that has fluttered up on the side, and see what angle it gives you. In this way we sidle up to the real material and actually find new meaning in it—artistic meaning.
So too, for me, the answer to the cruelly succinct “So what?” question is craft. Which is the only answer I can imagine to this “too personal” riddle. Because I don’t know how to help anyone else find, and barely know how to nurture in myself, the place from whence art arises, that wellspring below mere ego that produces work with heart. What to read, where to go, what to do, whom to love? Craft isn’t nearly as important as spirit, but neither one by itself is sufficient. And we can discuss craft, which is the gateway to art.
Or as Miller put it so beautifully, “Through enacting the practiced ritual of writing—writing with verve and focus and skill—we keep ourselves safe, and we keep our stories safe, and we extend this sanctuary to others.”
Richard Gilbert is completing a memoir, writes about memoir at his blog Narrative, (highly recommended for all serious students of the genre) and teaches writing at Otterbein University in Westerville, Ohio. His memoir essays have appeared in Brevity, Chautauqua, Fourth Genre, Memoir (and), Orion, River Teeth, and SNReview.
Ask Richard a question. Be personal!
[…] guest post on this issue, on how memoirists can tell their stories in ways that interest a general audience, […]
Richard, thank you so much for offering this essay. I loved the short memoir “Fidelity.” The bear in the story offers an analogy, an oblique angle of vision, AND a second plot: not only do we have the tabloid question, “Can this marriage be saved?” but we also have the National Geographic or Sierra Club question, “Will the bear win in the competition with people?” So it’s fun (and a little daunting to the newbie writer) to watch the braided narrative unfurl. The bear story and all the other stories from the past keep the story suspenseful and both passionate and unsentimental. This essay is no treacly tribute to marriage or to sobriety (two other options for this story); this is a work of art.
But I keep thinking about your statement “we can discuss craft” as though the spiritual side of writing must remain a mysterious silence. I hope readers will read your own blog post on the same subject here:http://richardgilbert.me/2013/02/26/the-so-what-dilemma/
I agree completely that HOW we tell our stories holds the key to reader interest in them.
I’m less sure, however, that “craft is all we can really discuss.”
I think we can discuss the raw emotion part of writing if we use craft the way Simpson used the bear. Parker Palmer writes about teaching and says the teacher’s job is to ” “To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” He also says we teach who we are. But the most relevant part of his theory is that we need a “third thing” between the teacher and the student. The third thing is the subject.
Our love for the third thing and our ability to shine light on it, is the equivalent of craft in teaching. But it does not change the fact that we are sharing the essence of who we are.
We can talk about both.
Both in writing and in teaching, we can never capture the spiritual nature of this process, even with the most eloquent words, braided around the most worthy “third thing.”
What say you, Richard?
Your argument is so eloquent, Shirley, how can I possibly disagree? I just think that it’s difficult, outside of a special setting and atmosphere, to really discuss the spiritual side. And in a classroom setting or workshop or conference, it seems hard to sustain it for more than a comment or two. Whereas most of us can go on for days about craft aspects!
I thought of something else, Shirley, was reminded of this great quote about the limitations of craft:
““Our answer is that writing is . . . not a bundle of skills,” conclude Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner in Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. “Although it is true that an ordinary intellectual activity like writing must lead to skills, and skills inevitably mark the performance, the activity does not come from the skills, nor does it consist of using them.”
This is from a blog post of mine from 2008, “Between Self and Story,” about the primacy of soul or personhood:
Thank you for this thought-provoking article. After writing three young adult novels, I’m now polishing a nonfiction parenting book and almost self-consciously doing my very best not to get “too personal” as I draw upon my own life experience. There seem to be two principles at work here: 1) Know yourself. 2) Know your Audience. The processing of raw experiences you describe helps us to know ourselves. Understanding the parts of our experience that are most universal and the emotions that our readers will most recognize as their own is what will connect us to our audience. But if I try to get too universal–try to appeal equally to everyone–then I end up with something of no particular interest to anyone. Identifying those I genuinely want to connect with helps me write with greater intention and awareness.
Wow, well said, Laurie. Too many cooks can surely spoil the broth. I think Thoreau said something like this in Walden, about how what he’d made would serve one person well and if it didn’t serve you, well, move on.
You define the writer’s dilemma very well, Laurie. And I am betting that you will hit just the right “sweet spot” for self and audience.
The issues you raise are profound, as are your “answers.” I like the idea of craft carrying the courage. — The example you use of the piece about the bear and the marriage reminds me of Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild.” Perhaps neither the hike she undertook nor the grief she was going through over her mother and her younger life would have been compelling enough on their own. It’s the way they seemed to stand in for each other, or act in tandem that made the book powerful, IMO. So does the craft, do you think, lie in discovering those experiences that in fact work out or represent our “other” experiences? I’m not sure I’m asking this question very well but I hope you’ll catch what I mean.
Strayed’s Wild is such a great example, Dora. The combination of the hike and of her backstory was so much more powerful than either one alone. The synergy was incredible. Hard to imagine either by itself: the hike alone would have been a bit thin, shorn of the context that gave it meaning; the backstory was rich but would have interested a much smaller audience by itself, a sad story—her mother’s early death and her own meltdown—but what was the result, in the end? The girl on the hike was the result, the broken girl trying to heal.
I think the craft sometimes does “lie in discovering those experiences that in fact work out or represent our ‘other’ experiences,” as you say. But not always! Because it’s the type of story one is trying to tell that determines what’s expressed and how. Otherwise, this might be a formula, one answer. But I do love braided essays for the way they tell TWO related stories, at least, and how that restores context and a more lifelike feel to the overall story.
I had the same immediate connection to Wild, probably because Richard has instructed his readers so well in the art of the “braided narrative” before. Thanks for the comment, Dora. Richard is always teaching us, and the answer is never pat!
Too personal? To write a memoir, you have to be emotionally invested. That emotion connects with readers. So the only way I think it can be too personal is if you are writing a revenge memoir, if you’re too angry and bitter.
At a reading in New Orleans, Mary Karr said, “I think memoirists are writing about how you continue to love people who have broken your fucking heart, how you maneuver in the world and show the inside, the complicated psychological insides of human relationships.”
How can that not be personal?
Craft gives you tools to make your story come to life on the page. What makes it unique is personal. And so is the voice you use to tell it. A Girl Named Zippy comes to mind. Her story is a simple one, but it’s told in a voice like no other that is delightful to read.
I love Zippy, Darrelyn. Yes, the “too personal” makes no sense, hence my irritation at my rejector, except in the odd way it was used: of no interest to anyone but yourself. Or at least, that work flunked that person’s mass market test.
So, Richard, do you agree with the reviewer’s perspective that memoirs should not be “too personal,” or are you disagreeing? Did your initial irritation give way to a reduction of the personal in your work? And is the measure a “mass market test” or is it art?
We all agree that Zippy is a wonderful memoir. Do you know the story of how it came to be published? I would love to hear it.
I guess my post isn’t clear on this. What I meant to communicate is that of course memoir is personal but what was meant was “only of interest to you personally.” Not “too personal” as we mean it, which is why it was weird and I had to decode the meaning. Anyway, the key to making the personal of wide interest is personal plus craft—presentation. I believe that’s the key, to have both. People find personal things interesting if they are interesting, which means not just an interesting subject—getting attacked by a bear—but in presentation. So the braided structure is a good example of this, especially in “Fidelity.” Try to imagine the essay with only one of its stories; it would be half as interesting, at best. Probably the most personal stuff there, the marriage stuff, would flop with most editors by itself.
Richard, you were clear. I just wanted to pull your leg a little and hear you say it again. 🙂 I was drinking a breve latte with our friend Darrelyn in Baton Rouge when your reply came through, so we read and enjoyed it together.
I do think each writer needs to find his or her own place to connect the personal to the universal through the art of telling a story skillfully. Experienced writers learn how to find their own voice inside the memoir construction zone and blend their own stories with the stories of others through just the right combination of guidance and space for the reader. You, more than anyone else, have helped me to understand this. Now practicing it? That may be another matter. 🙂
Cheers to you! Again.
Ha! Well, ya got me. Sounds like you are having a wonderful road trip. How neat to meet up with Darrelyn.
Dear Shirley and Richard,
What a thought-provoking and fascinating discussion and the comments are as intriguing as the post! It seems to me that it’s not so much a matter of what events we share in memoir but rather how we tell our story and the impact the events had on us. It is through inviting the reader into our deeply personal experiences that we reflect, connect, transform both ourselves and our readers. I am reminded of the quote” no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader”When we write from the heart of our story, we do get personal but we do have to convey meaning through craft.I do appreciate your reference to the “braided narrative” as being a storytelling technique that deepens the narrative as Cheryl Strayed did in “Wild” Thank you both for an informative and stimulating discussion!
Nicely put, Kathy. I think it’s hard to know sometimes whether what we have written, compelling in our experience, is boring for readers. That’s what I was accused of, and didn’t agree with, and my piece was later accepted elsewhere. So much depends on the reader’s taste and expectations. I do believe the appeal begins in deeply caring about your own story and then applying craft. I also think it must raise questions, which always intrigue readers, that are answered overtly or implicitly in its course.
Thanks, Kathy, for this reminder that there are at least three elements to our own stories: What happened. How we tell it. And the emotional impact, residue, it had/has.
No pain, no gain. No tears, no cheers?? Too simple, I know. But a good reminder to me, at least, to make sure I haven’t glossed over the feeling.
The best guidance I got about balancing “art” against “personal” was from the example of my friend, creative genius Rich Mullins.
He found truth–the internal, beguiling, everlasting truth of our experience, ringing straight to the heart–to be the chord which draws our audience near enough for our stories to resonate. The closer we stick to our honest reactions to events, rather than the ones we wish we’d had, the more likely we are to touch the hearts of readers.
He was also an inveterate craftsman, so I have been perpetually intimidated while writing about him.
Awesome words and model, Pam. Going deep, distilling our meaning, depicting honestly our experience must surely give our stories wider appeal. And a resonance that transcends raw experience.
Pam, I know the feeling of intimidation in front of a respected role model. However, I’m sure that the more you study and maybe even attempt to imitate the craft of your mentor, the closer you will come to your own truth. Blessings on that path.
Appreciate the blessings, Shirley!
Whoops, too late to attempt! I’ve already published Singing from Silence. I don’t aspire to match the accomplishments of my old friend, but that’s why I call my website A Candle to the Sun. Even if it’s the only light I’ve got–I’m gonna let it shine.
Thank you again for your generous thoughts,
[…] been thinking all week about these words by Richard Gilbert from last week’s post. Richard makes the case, eloquently as always, that the craft of writing may be less important than […]
I’m so glad I stumbled on this blog! I’m in the middle of polishing up my memoir, and wondered if I was delving into some territory that is too personal..in other words, more than anyone wants or needs to know. Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild is my inspiration, having come upon it after completing my first draft. What makes her book real to me is all of the deeply personal things she writes about. That’s where I’d like to go. So back to the question. If I add some of the personal relationships I have left out, I feel my memoir would be richer. It would advance the story of what it was like being the only woman on a fire crew in the 1970’s. On the other hand…how do I handle what these men would think if they read this? Changing names isn’t enough. Of course they would know who they are. Any thoughts?
Hi Linda, sounds like you have a great subject for a memoir. It’s hard to comment without knowing what kinds of relationships you are describing. Harassment? Good humor? One of the boys? Romance?
Authors handle this kind of situation differently. Changing names does help.
The legal department for your publisher will have opinions after the manuscript is finished. They look for libel.
And you will have to decide whether to bring your former colleagues together, or meet with them individually, to ask if they have any requests of you as you write.
In general, if people have had some kind of consult with you and have felt heard, not blindsided, they are likely to at least tolerate being your subjects. Some people will feel insulted by being left out!
We’ll see if Richard can add any thoughts. Glad you found the post, and all best on your book! You can find lots of relevant subjects for memoir writers covered both on Richard’s blog and this one.
A little of everything! The romance part is what is hard. Things got a little crazy…the only female working with 20 men.
I have talked to the people I could find, (one is my ex, whom I met firefighting) and they were okay with it before. The book is changing now…I’m adding more about the experiences than what happened. Including my relationships with these guys.
Good information, though, thank you! I look forward to hearing what others may have to say.
Linda, you can also change physical descriptions and identifying details, if specificity would embarrass anyone or expose you or your publisher to liability. That’s not ideal but it’s commonly done—and I did it in several cases in my memoir.
Thank you, Richard! Probably won’t help in my case, since the Ranger Station location and year would identify to anyone who knew (or knows) these people. I really don’t think there will be a problem. Actually, I solved my dilemma about whether or not to add details about a certain person. I decided to stay noncommittal about our relationship in the story, and just use what I remember he or I said, or what I wrote in my journal.