Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

3.94 avg rating
( 293 ratings by Goodreads )
 
9780142181973: Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature

In the voices of twenty landmark memoirists—including New York Times bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy—a definitive text on the craft of autobiographical writing, indispensable for amateur and professional writers alike.

For readers of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir and Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir, this follow-up to editor Meredith Maran’s acclaimed writers’ handbook, Why We Write, offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice for bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists.
 
Curated and edited by Maran, herself an acclaimed author and book critic, these memoirists share the lessons they’ve learned through years of honing their craft. They reveal what drives them to tell their personal stories and examine the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these outstanding authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most—and least—about writing about themselves.
 
“It's possible that Why We Write About Ourselves is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre.”
– LA Times

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

Meredith Maran, a passionate reader and writer of memoirs, is the author of thirteen nonfiction books and the acclaimed novel A Theory Of Small Earthquakes. Meredith also writes book reviews, essays, and features for newspapers and magazines including People, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Salon.com, and More. A member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith lives in a restored historic bungalow in Los Angeles, and on Twitter at @meredithmaran. Her next memoir is about starting over in Los Angeles.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Leslie Bohm Photography

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA

Acknowledgments

Oh, Becky Cole. Becky Cole! What’s not to love about an editor who starts her edit letter, “Do you have five minutes? Then you can probably make the requested changes in the ms. Golly, it’s good.” Thank you, Becky, for keeping both of us laughing even when certain unnamed memoirists (not one of whom appears in this book) proved to be kind of, well, difficult, causing us to wonder whether we could get away with, say, thirteen or fourteen contributors instead of twenty.

Linda Loewenthal, you’re such a good person, it’s hard to believe you’re an agent. You’re more like a spirit guide. A spirit guide who’s also a hardass negotiator and brilliant thinker and editor and book-doula and muse and, most of all, an indefatigable, unflagging, loving literary companion. Thank you. I love you.

For time, space, and profound nourishment: a thousand picnic basketsful of thanks to the artists’ colonies MacDowell, Yaddo, the Mesa Refuge, Ragdale, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Mabel Dodge Luhan House.

Booksellers and independent bookstore owners: I hope everyone who buys this book will buy it from you.

To my friends and family: Thank you for holding me up, at all times, no matter what.

Introduction

I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.

Gloria’s right. You can’t divorce a memoir. But, as the twenty successful authors in this book attest, you can (and some do) divorce, disown, de-friend, or defame a memoirist. If you want to ruin your life and/or others’, there’s really no more surefire method than writing a true-life tale according to you.

Why, then, do so many authors risk public, private, and/or professional excoriation for the dubious pleasure of writing about themselves? What is it about sharing one’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and experiences with others that makes it worth the mayhem and mishegas?

Without demand, of course, there would be no supply. So we must also ask why we read memoirs. For centuries, readers, reviewers, and social commentators have been gobbling up first-person narratives, all the while diagnosing the books’ authors with attention-seeking disorders. Is the urge to read memoirs the same urge that makes us peek into strangers’ undraped windows at night—not just because we’re nosy, but to learn something from how other people live, in order to live better lives ourselves?

Whatever the reasons for our attachment to memoir, it’s a phenomenon that’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. The genre has been around since St. Augustine wrote his thirteen-volume Confessions around A.D. 400. In one form or another, memoir lives on today—in the journal entry, blog, confessional e-mail, or Facebook post you wrote an hour ago. Forgive us, Descartes; today’s philosophy of existence might best be expressed thusly: “I overshare, therefore I am.”

People who love memoirs claim that the telling of the true-life story is the contemporary incantation of oral history, an invaluable contribution to the enlightenment, the collective consciousness, perhaps even the evolution of the species.

People who don’t love memoirs say the genre is a scourge upon the human race, a playing field upon which attention-craving, sensationalistic, crass, and craven narcissists head-butt and navel-gaze their way to the bestseller lists.

Between the covers of this book, twenty very different memoirists share their very different reasons for doing what they do and their sometimes different, sometimes overlapping approaches to the controversies that surround the genre.

“I’m always asking myself if material I have from my own life would be best used in a novel or a memoir or a short story or an essay,” says Cheryl Strayed. “I was moved to write Wild as a memoir because I thought that was the best way to tell that particular story.”

“I actually never intended to publish a book,” says Ishmael Beah, whose bestselling A Long Way Gone describes his life as a twelve-year-old soldier in Sierra Leone. “Writing [became] for me a way to prove my existence.”

“Some of us are the designated rememberers,” The Death of Santini author Pat Conroy told me. “That’s why memoir interests us—because we’re the ones who pass the stories.”

“I have never written memoir by choice,” says Edwidge Danticat, author of Brother, I’m Dying. “Each time I write memoir, in short or long form, something happens that compels me to do it—something that feels pressing and urgent, something that there is no other way to express.”

How does memoir writing differ from journal keeping? Should a memoir be a work of art, produced for the benefit of the reader—or a cathartic writing experience for the benefit of the author?

“People want to believe that a memoirist has simply opened a vein and bled on the page,” according to Ayelet Waldman. “That’s a diary. A diary can be emotionally satisfying, it can be great therapy, but it’s not necessarily good writing.”

“A memoir is not simply stringing together the five or ten good stories you’ve been telling about your wacky childhood for your whole life,” Nick Flynn says.

But A. M. Homes says she wrote a memoir about her adoption “to organize the information and the experience—to put it in a container, if only to set the container aside for a while.”

When I asked the writers about the morality of memoir—whether memoirists are obligated to protect the privacy of the loved (and not-loved) ones in their lives—emotions ran high.

Sue Monk Kidd said that writing memoir is “a dance between being true to my need to write authentically and my responsibility to those around me not to cross over into their private hearts and extract something that doesn’t belong to me.”

Edmund White said, “Memoir should be extremely honest and personal. It should show the author for who he is, warts and all . . . A memoirist’s contract with the reader is that you’re telling the truth and nothing but the truth. That requires telling everything there is to say about everyone involved.”

“What I worried about most, writing the memoir,” said Kate Christensen, “was offending people or causing anyone pain. I’m used to writing about invented characters. Writing about real people was a huge stretch—a leap into new territory.”

“At first I was worried that my book would be really exploitive,” Anne Lamott said. “But then my editor said, ‘It won’t be exploitive if you don’t exploit anyone.’”

Whatever your thoughts and feelings about this provocative, evocative genre, whether you’re a producer or a consumer of memoir, or neither, or both, I hope you’ll benefit from the literary, emotional, psychological, and moral self-examination that’s on display in these pages.

In their own books, the memoirists included here bare all. In this book, they bare all about baring all, excavating the personal and professional agonies and ecstasies, moral conundrums, and psychological battles that come with the job.

—Meredith Maran

CHAPTER ONE

Ishmael Beah

There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land. It wasn’t until refugees started passing through our town that we began to see that it was actually taking place in our country.

Opening, A Long Way Gone, 2007

In 1993, when Ishmael Beah was twelve years old, antigovernment soldiers invaded his village of Mogbwemo, Sierra Leone. Along with many other boys, he fled the village, spent months wandering the countryside, and was then conscripted into the government army at age thirteen. In 1996, after witnessing and committing unthinkable acts of war, Ishmael was rescued by UNICEF, which helped him with his rehabilitation and reinsertion into normal life. He was later adopted by an American woman, Laura Simms, and found a home and a school—the United Nations International School—in New York City.

From there Ishmael made his way to Oberlin College, where he studied political science and took some creative writing courses with the novelist Dan Chaon. By the time he graduated in 2004, Ishmael had a draft of the memoir that would become A Long Way Gone, his account of his years as a child soldier.

The book was an immediate hit; it has since sold more than 1.5 million copies. But its publication was not without controversy. In early 2009, Rupert Murdoch’s Australian investigated Ishmael’s story and said that his account was exaggerated. The paper claimed that the attack on Ishmael’s village had happened in 1995, not 1993 as described in A Long Way Gone. Since Ishmael had been rescued by UNICEF in 1996, the Australian claimed, he’d been a child soldier for months, not years.

Three days after the article appeared, Ishmael published a rebuttal, saying, “I am right about my story. This is not something one gets wrong . . . Sad to say, my story is all true.”

Ishmael’s publisher, Sarah Crichton at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, stood firmly behind him. His adoptive mother said, “I knew this was not fraudulent. The last thing that Ishmael would want is to lie about what he cannot forget.”

For Ishmael, being accused of lying is small potatoes, compared to living with those memories.

“If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself,” he has said. “I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can.”

THE VITALS

Birthday: November 23, 1980

Born and raised: Born in Mattru Jong and raised in Mogbwemo, Bonthe District, Sierra Leone

Home now: New York, New York

Family: Married to Priscillia Kounkou Hoveyda; one daughter

Schooling: United Nations International School; Oberlin College, BA in political science

Day job: Author and activist; volunteer for UNICEF and Human Rights Watch

Notable notes:


   •  A Long Way Gone was selected as the second title featured in Starbucks’ Book Break program.
   • Ishmael was nominated for a Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year; Time named A Long Way Gone one of its Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007.
   • In an interview with his Oberlin College mentor, Dan Chaon, Ishmael said, “When you’re writing you feel like there are probably other forces at work, like the words are just coming out of you. They’re very sweet moments, but they don’t last very long.”

Twitter: @IshmaelBeah

Website: www.ishmaelbeah.com

THE COLLECTED WORKS

Memoir

A Long Way Gone, 2007

Novel

Radiance of Tomorrow, 2014

Ishmael Beah

Why I write about myself

I do not consider myself a memoirist. I consider myself a writer who happened to be introduced as a writer to the world through a memoir, a nonfictional book. I actually never intended to publish a book.

Prior to making the commitment to write my memoir, writing had become for me a way to prove my existence. Apart from my passport, I had no physical objects or documentation to do so.

I remember when I began applying to schools in the United States. I was asked to provide a report card. “I don’t have one,” I would say. Often the response was “Well, everyone has a report card.” I would chuckle and correct them. “I’m from Sierra Leone, and I don’t have one.”

When I started high school in New York, I wrote an essay titled “Why I Do Not Have a Report Card.” I got a glimpse then that my core reason for writing would be to expose people to certain realities and hope to deepen their understanding of the other, of places that may seem far away.

A sense of urgency made me do it

The story of A Long Way Gone was the first story I needed to tell with urgency. There were other stories within me, but this one possessed me.

Writing it also came out of several frustrations. I felt the need to correct the way my people and my country were portrayed. Each time I said to someone that I was from Sierra Leone, they responded by telling me about the horrors of the civil war, as though it had always been that way and as if war was the only identity of my country. There was no context, and more important, no human context, in the way my people were presented. Here I was, a young man living away from home, carrying a splinter of the very story that was misrepresented. So I had to do something about it, using my small part of a much larger story.

Writing as if each book might be my last

Whether I am writing nonfiction or fiction, I always write about things that are meaningful to me—situations that speak to my being. I approach each piece of writing, whether it’s a short story, a book, or a novel, as though it were the first and last story I will write.

There was risk involved

I worried that people wouldn’t want to read my memoir because their initial response to the subject matter was only a reaction to the violence, the kind they hear or read about, without the human context and framework. That framework has the power to make a person understand that there is nowhere in the world where people will choose violence if they have other viable ways of living.

My aspiration was to show how everyone is capable of violence if you happen to find yourself in circumstances that propel you toward violence as a way to live. I wanted to show that no one can decide ahead of time whether you will embrace violence or not until you are in a certain situation.

I very much wanted to show the realities of war. At the same time, I was overwhelmed by the need to be careful not to write something that could be mistaken as an endorsement or a celebration of violence.

I was fueled by the importance of putting the human face on war, the worst kind of war, and showing the strength of human beings to outlive life’s worst circumstances. I wanted to show that beauty and hope can exist even when there is no reason for hope, even when it seems all has been lost.

Protecting the innocent

For those people in my memoir who were alive and I could find, I explained to them what I was embarking on and that I would present them from my point of view. Those who weren’t comfortable, I used only their first names.

As to my own privacy, I just wrote from how I thought about things as a child, in sort of a matter-of-fact way and unapologetically. I had to return to how I felt about things as a child, as a boy, not as the young man I had become by the time I wrote the book.

I knew, though, from the beginning, that I wouldn’t share everything. It isn’t possible to write about everything, and some things I needed to keep for my family and myself—the deepest intimacies of my emotions and experiences. My desir...

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

Top Search Results from the AbeBooks Marketplace

1.

ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
BWB
(Valley Stream, NY, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Book Condition: New. Depending on your location, this item may ship from the US or UK. Bookseller Inventory # 97801421819730000000

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
8.47
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

2.

Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller
The Book Depository
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In the voices of twenty landmark memoirists--including New York Times bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy--a definitive text on the craft of autobiographical writing, indispensable for amateur and professional writers alike. For readers of Mary Karr s The Art of Memoir and Judith Barrington s Writing the Memoir, this follow-up to editor Meredith Maran s acclaimed writers handbook, Why We Write, offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice for bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists. Curated and edited by Maran, herself an acclaimed author and book critic, these memoirists share the lessons they ve learned through years of honing their craft. They reveal what drives them to tell their personal stories and examine the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these outstanding authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most--and least--about writing about themselves. It s possible that Why We Write About Ourselves is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre. - LA Times. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780142181973

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
9.23
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

3.

Maran, Meredith (Edt)
Published by Plume Books 2016-01-26 (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 2
Seller
BookOutlet
(Thorold, ON, Canada)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Plume Books 2016-01-26, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Paperback. Publisher overstock, may contain remainder mark on edge. Bookseller Inventory # 9780142181973B

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
4.74
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 4.61
From Canada to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

4.

Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 1
Seller
The Book Depository US
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . Brand New Book. In the voices of twenty landmark memoirists--including New York Times bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy--a definitive text on the craft of autobiographical writing, indispensable for amateur and professional writers alike. For readers of Mary Karr s The Art of Memoir and Judith Barrington s Writing the Memoir, this follow-up to editor Meredith Maran s acclaimed writers handbook, Why We Write, offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice for bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists. Curated and edited by Maran, herself an acclaimed author and book critic, these memoirists share the lessons they ve learned through years of honing their craft. They reveal what drives them to tell their personal stories and examine the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these outstanding authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most--and least--about writing about themselves. It s possible that Why We Write About Ourselves is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre. - LA Times. Bookseller Inventory # AAS9780142181973

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
9.50
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

5.

Maran, Meredith
Published by Penguin Group USA (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
Paperbackshop-US
(Wood Dale, IL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Group USA, 2016. PAP. Book Condition: New. New Book. Shipped from US within 10 to 14 business days. Established seller since 2000. Bookseller Inventory # VP-9780142181973

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
6.55
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.06
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

6.

Published by Penguin Putnam Inc, United States (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 10
Seller
Book Depository hard to find
(London, United Kingdom)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Putnam Inc, United States, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Language: English . This book usually ship within 10-15 business days and we will endeavor to dispatch orders quicker than this where possible. Brand New Book. In the voices of twenty landmark memoirists--including New York Times bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Sue Monk Kidd, and Pat Conroy--a definitive text on the craft of autobiographical writing, indispensable for amateur and professional writers alike. For readers of Mary Karr s The Art of Memoir and Judith Barrington s Writing the Memoir, this follow-up to editor Meredith Maran s acclaimed writers handbook, Why We Write, offers inspiration, encouragement, and pithy, practical advice for bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists. Curated and edited by Maran, herself an acclaimed author and book critic, these memoirists share the lessons they ve learned through years of honing their craft. They reveal what drives them to tell their personal stories and examine the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these outstanding authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most--and least--about writing about themselves. It s possible that Why We Write About Ourselves is the first compilation of memoirists at the top of their game seriously and thoughtfully considering the genre. - LA Times. Bookseller Inventory # BTE9780142181973

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
9.70
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: FREE
From United Kingdom to U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

7.

Maran, Meredith
Published by Penguin Group USA (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Quantity Available: 20
Seller
Pbshop
(Wood Dale, IL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Group USA, 2016. PAP. Book Condition: New. New Book.Shipped from US within 10 to 14 business days. Established seller since 2000. Bookseller Inventory # IB-9780142181973

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
6.84
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.06
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

8.

MARAN, MEREDITH
Published by Penguin Random House
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Quantity Available: > 20
Seller
INDOO
(Avenel, NJ, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Penguin Random House. Book Condition: New. Brand New. Bookseller Inventory # 0142181978

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
7.35
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 2.69
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

9.

Published by Plume (2016)
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 2
Seller
Murray Media
(North Miami Beach, FL, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Plume, 2016. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # 0142181978

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
8.20
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 2.30
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

10.

Maran, Meredith
ISBN 10: 0142181978 ISBN 13: 9780142181973
New Paperback Quantity Available: 16
Seller
BargainBookStores
(Grand Rapids, MI, U.S.A.)
Rating
[?]

Book Description Paperback. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # 9785568

More Information About This Seller | Ask Bookseller a Question

Buy New
7.49
Convert Currency

Add to Basket

Shipping: 3.06
Within U.S.A.
Destination, Rates & Speeds

There are more copies of this book

View all search results for this book