Why We Write About Ourselves
by Meredith Maran
Plume Publishing, 2016
Review by Tijuana L.Canders
Apr 10, 2017
Why We Write about Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and others) in the Name of Literature offers everything a reader might wish for from twenty diverse and talented memoirists, including some perennial favorites from the memoir genre.
Each author gets their own chapter, which begins with a sample of their writing and a brief and delightful overview of that memoirist’s career and contributions written by Meredith Maran, the book’s editor. There are also two boxed features: “The Vitals,” with biographical details and fun facts, and “The Collected Works,” which lists the author’s works. The heart of the chapter comes next – the memoirists’ answers to the key question of why they write about themselves, and much more. Each chapter ends with one more boxed feature – the author’s “wisdom for memoir writers.”
The memoirists’ reasons for writing about themselves were sometimes highly distinctive. For example, Ishmael Beah, child soldier and author of A Long Way Gone, said that writing about himself was a way of establishing his existence: “Apart from my passport, I had no physical objects or documentation to do so.” He also wanted to correct misperceptions about his country, Sierra Leone.
Although the authors gave reasons for writing memoir, all of the authors had one motivation in common: they wanted to write about themselves in ways that would resonate far beyond themselves. I was most moved by authors who said they wish they wrote the book they could have read when they were struggling. In her teaching, Anne Lamott turns that into a lesson. She tells her students “to write the book they’d like to come upon.” Sandra Tsing Loh said, “Whatever I’ve been through, I want to make it better for someone else.”
Every memoir is a story not just of the person doing the writing, but of other people in their lives. People who are flawed and complicated and human, but who may not appreciate being portrayed in all of their humanity. Each author grapples with this issue, and they come up with very different solutions. Edwidge Danticat worries about what her family will think: “I’d rather have relatives than a book…I try to tell my version, but if others object to it, I tell their versions, too.”
That’s now how A. M. Holmes sees things: “I didn’t ask anyone’s permission to tell the story the way I experienced it.” Pat Conroy explained why he will “always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what’s written” because “If a story is not told, it’s the silence around that untold story that ends up killing people.” And several authors admitted that they often cannot predict how someone they’ve described will react. For instance, Jesmyn Ward said, “I wrote the memoir as a love letter to our family. She [her mother] read it as a condemnation.”
One of the reasons I wanted to write about this book review is that so many of the writers and readers on the site write about themselves, or enjoy reading people who write about themselves. Yet all of the authors in Why We Write about Ourselves who addressed the issue of blogging and tweeting insist that memoir writing was something different. James McBride (whose chapter includes a wonderful discussion of how writers of color are treated in the publishing industry) says that “memoirists have to speak of deeper things.” It is not just unedited spilling, either, of the sort you might do in your personal journals. As Cheryl Strayed said, “I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation.”
Why We Write About Ourselves is written with relevant expertise and can be used as a discussion platform at book conferences, writing groups or literature classes to give support to authors who desire to impact the world with literature and have always wanted to see their words in print.
© 2017 Tijuana L. Canders