There is nothing easy about doing all you have to do to make people and emotions alive on the page or screen while also scooping out the truth of your own heart, while also making a serious attempt to tell it like it actually was. And I couldn’t agree with her more about a good memoir being the opposite of narcissistic.
I’m so bored with arguments against memoir. They’re almost always simple-minded and ignorant. I tend to know people are in trouble when they speak in categorical terms about anything like an entire literary genre. Yes, there are memoirs that are narcissistic and awful! Just like there are novels that are narcissistic and awful and there are poems that are narcissistic and awful and there are plays that are narcissistic and awful. Narcissism and awfulness has absolutely nothing to do with the genre itself. I think some people are threatened by the idea of memoir. Like “how dare someone who isn’t famous get to write about his or her life and expect others to read it!” But the truth is, we’ve been using our lives as material since the dawn of literature, in every genre.
— Cheryl Strayed on memoir-writing via Lit Hub
Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference–the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
“I realized that I could remember something and he could remember something different, and if we built up a store of separate memories, how would that work, and would it be okay? The answer, of course, in the end, was no.”
I just finished reading Rachel Khong’s new book, Goodbye, Vitamin. Mostly I related to the details the narrator remembers about specific days, the introspection and doubt that occurs after heartbreak, the strange closeness you can feel to family members while also feeling alien amongst them, the lies you tell under the pretense of protecting the ones you love, the dichotomy between how you remember something versus how the other person in a romantic relationship remembers something.
At the time she was reeling from a breakup, contending with the way a tanking relationship exposes a chasm between each partner’s memories of seemingly joint experiences. How can a person trapped in the morass of imperfect recall identify true north without signposts? “I’m terrified of forgetting. If I could remember everything, I thought, I’d be better equipped; I’d be better able to make proper, comprehensive assessments—informed decisions. But my memory had proved itself unreliable, and I needed something better.”
I have a strange habit. Maybe I fool myself into thinking that it’s a writerly habit: I devote a lot of my life to observing and remembering details. I comb through the past when I’m writing vignettes, but this sometimes prevents me from living fully in the present.