Several of my blogfriends are writing memoirs, and there’s been some discussion lately about how far one should go and how much one should share about one’s life.
I haven’t been much help, as the thought of writing a memoir any deeper than I’ve already gone on this blog scares the crap out of me. The scar tissue I scrape away in my own writings—the rare post aside—belongs, at least nominally, to imaginary people. And I have my well-defended reasons for that.
But I thought that the question of how much to share maybe depended on the purpose of the memoir. Therapy? Catharsis? To provoke a reaction in the reader? To help? To educate? To find others who understand, or are looking for someone who understands?
I was willing to leave it at that . . . until yesterday’s meeting of the library’s short story group.
Last month, I’d handed out a section from Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year, the part where one of her dearest friends, who has supported her through Anne’s pregnancy and early months as a single mother, is diagnosed with cancer.
Anne weaves her joy hope, worry, and stress over trying to raise her seven-month old son with her devastation over the severity of her friend’s illness.
I’d anticipated a lively discussion about parenting and cancer and the balance between life and death, some objections over her use of strong language, and maybe a small argument over politics, because this was written in the early 1990s and Anne Lamott pulls no punches when it comes to her views about the first President Bush.
What I hadn’t expected was the reactions of one of our members, who flat out thought that Anne’s reaction to her friend’s cancer was absolutely the worst thing she had ever read and that the writer should have kept these feelings to herself.
I mentioned that the book hadn’t been published until well after her friend’s death and that, in the journal, there was no indication that she was anything other than positive to her friend.
The reader recognized this, but said that this section would pull people down instead of lifting them up—and what was the point of that? There wasn’t any purpose, in her opinion, to sharing these intensely personal feelings of despair with readers, She added that she was so glad she hadn’t read this while her own mother was dying from cancer, or she never would have been able to keep a positive attitude about it. Which she did, because happiness is helpful.
I was about to ask the group if they thought that was the purpose of sharing this journal—to be helpful, but another reader spoke up.
She said that Anne’s reaction was the same as hers, when she found out that her husband had cancer. And that she was glad someone was brave enough to share those horrible feelings, because at the time, the reader had been told by everyone that the only thing she was supposed to do was be positive. Not happy, but upbeat.
“I did,” she said. “Because I understood that I couldn’t be a burden to him and I had to help him fight. But it would have been nice to know that someone else understood how I really felt and that I was allowed to feel awful that my husband was dying. It would have lifted me up to know that someone else felt that bad and still kept going. And I’m glad she decided to share it. I’m going to read the whole book.”
Just to contradict my second paragraph, up there, several years ago, I read a brutal, graphically detailed memoir about a woman with a severe eating disorder. I made an appointment with a therapist the next week. When I casually mentioned during a later session that this book was part of why I’d decided I needed to talk to someone, he looked thoughtful and said that one of his colleagues had told him that some hospitalized patients had been passing the book around the clinic in order to share new ways to cater to their disorders. My therapist praised me for not missing the author’s point.
A fellow librarian who hosts a book group at another library said that they’d read Ann Frank’s diary. Several people said how inspirational it was—but one said that he didn’t bother reading it because there wasn’t any point to her hope, because she dies.
Chris Crutcher is a former family therapist whose young adult books about child abuse, bullying, and terminal illness are fictional composites drawn from the real situations of children he’s known. They’ve been banned many times—and the library can’t keep them on the shelves.
So . . .
It seems to me that whatever the reason for writing a memoir intended for publication, the writer doesn’t need to worry about what or how much they share. Readers will interpret the writer’s experiences through their own.
And the readers who most need to read those words will find them, and a connection will be made.
And that, I think, is the purpose of putting words down where others can read them.