The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness. Memoirists use the self as a tool. –Patricia Hampl
Perhaps because I’m entering my twenty-third year of teaching writing, I’m getting curmudgeonly about memoir. I still revere fine examples in the genre, but the vast majority of memoir seems myopic and disengaged. Published works irritate me the most; I read a memoir like Sheryl Strayed’s Wild and run screaming back to the classics to recover. Memoirs-in-process at least contain the possibility of improving.
The amateur writers I work with fear that memoir is selfish, but this isn’t my gripe. “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!” writes Carol Bly. The self is a wonderfully worthy subject. Perhaps what grates on me is a distinctly American understanding of the self, obsessed with personal pain and disturbingly isolated. I am interested in the self defined by and defining its surrounding community; the self as a pawn of and player in history; the self in dialogue with others—neighbors and readers and those long dead and those yet to be born; the self as an inhabitant of the natural world; the self as a window onto our shared humanity and our extraordinary differences. We are each so broken and insignificant, and yet also magnificent. I’m interested in the paradoxes and revelations of the self.
Memoir works best when the self becomes a lens—a consciousness, as Hampl calls it, especially consciousness of material beyond the self. Another way to say this is that memoir succeeds when it shows the self in relationship to some subject, aware of this relationship, and exploring the relationship with curiosity and acumen.
As a culture we desperately need literature that connects our small lives to larger stories of struggle and meaning. I’m beginning to believe that writers have a moral responsibility not just to craft good stories but to create stories that build connections between people rather than breaking them down. On second thought, morality has nothing to do with it. The stories that build connections are simply better stories.
The other evening I taught a lesson at the Loft that was meant to help beginning memoirists distinguish between the character and the narrator in their stories. We create personas for ourselves on the page; the main character in every memoir is the younger self who experiences and is changed by events; we can also portray ourselves as a narrator looking back on these events. For writers who assume the “I” on the page is also the living, breathing self, the lesson was tough. Brows furrowed, baffled questions were asked, small groups struggled to figure out which “I” was which, and despair settled everywhere.
I’ve observed this happen whenever I teach some element of craft. Say I reflect on the value of using sensory details; suddenly my students are overly conscious about not using sensory details and assume they’ve failed, or their writing grows ridiculously burdened with sensory details and does fail. Or say I distinguish between prose that shows and prose that tells; suddenly my students’ acute desire to write scenes gives them writer’s block.
Craft instruction seems to set my students’ writing back a step. Before the lesson the other evening, students were easily zooming in on the character and zooming back to reflect as a narrator. Afterward they could barely function.
The funny thing is that most of us intuit what makes a good story and most of us come by strong story-telling skills naturally, effortlessly. Learning the craft of writing is really a process of growing aware about these natural elements so we can make intentional decisions about them. At first our stories control us. As we learn to write and as we take a piece through revision, making deliberate choices about language and perspective and structure and theme, we gain control over our stories. We author stories; we become authors.
The trouble is that the road to awareness passes through crippling self-consciousness. Take heart! This too shall pass. With practice, self-consciousness recedes into informed consciousness. The more you attend to elements of craft in your writing, the easier it is to return to that natural state—only smarter, and with more power behind your pen. Stick with writing and your awareness becomes your greatest asset.