Is Memoir Writing Self-Indulgent?

WritingIt certainly feels that way at times. When I’m writing memoir, I’m my own main character, my life is the plot, my predilections become the theme, the story is from my perspective and all the characters’ voices are in some ways filtered through my own.

But on the other hand, memoir writing can be like a crucible. When you are writing memoir and really digging into it, it can be excruciating. Your embarrassing moments are laid bare. And so are your faults. You have to look at yourself in a real way, and it can be scary and really hard to do.

In fact, I know that’s held me back on my latest memoir project. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to tell a particular story, tentatively titled A Case of You, but it has been hard to get started and keep going on the story because I know there are parts of myself that I’ll have to face that I’d rather not acknowledge at all. So many times I’ll start working on bits and pieces of the project, only to stop a few days later and leave it alone for months. Sometimes the thought of facing those darker parts of yourself can feel scarier than almost anything you could encounter in your external life. But memoir writing doesn’t let you get away with running away from it.

I used to be part of a memoir group, and this question was posed in different ways throughout the time the group met. Sometimes it can feel like you’re doing something wrong by spending all this time on your story, by having the gall to think that your story is worth telling at all. And that’s why it’s good to have a group. If people are deeply writing about their lives–the struggles, the joys, the regrets, love, loss, anguish, the small moments of grace–without running from it, without escaping into pat writing, there is something worth sharing. We all have stories. Our individual lives matter. I never doubted the worthiness of any of my groupmembers’ stories. The value was always clear.

For the most part, I feel the same when reading memoirs. And maybe it’s my own personality and tastes. I’ve always been drawn to narratives about real life. Even in my TV watching preferences, I much, much, much prefer stories that seem like they could be real, set in modern times with realistic people. Even as a kid, I was never one for cartoons or talking animals and gravitated more towards shows and movies with real people actors. Even when I read some sci-fi type stuff as a teenager, it was always the kind of stuff that focused more on the characters and their developments and interactions, or made me contemplate life. And now as an adult, I gravitate towards shows like Breaking Bad, which though may not always be fully realistic, is about realistic people and their choices and the fallout. Same with The Office. I like that both shows, in different ways completely, linger on awkward moments. And small moments.

I love that about memoirs too. Aside from a few crappy celebrity memoirs that will go unnamed, and maybe a smaller amount of non-celebrity ones that do seem to focus on self-indulgence, I think most memoirs, at least of the ones I’ve read, don’t come across that way. Most feel like they took a lot of work, took the author to some uncomfortable places that probably weren’t easy to write about, and most show the author in lots of not-so-flattering light when needed, and I think that goes a long way to connecting on a very imperfect human to imperfect human level.

Memoir writing can be a crucible, which often feels more like some sort of beautiful, almost sacrificial self-immolation than self-indulgence.

~EJ

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