How Much Is Too Much? What I Love and Fear about Memoirs


I am really into reading memoirs lately. Actually, as I think about the books that have really stuck with me over time, quite a few of them are memoirs.  Here are some of my faves:

Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors

Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted and Madness

Stephen King’s On Writing (which is mostly memoir with some awesome writing advice mixed in)

Glennon Doyle Melton’s Carry On Warrior

Dani Shapiro’s Slow Motion and Still Writing

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic

I also really enjoyed listening to Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father  (fascinating); and Bonnie McFarlane’s You’re Better Than Me (hilarious!) on audio books.

I recently had the privilege of writing my first “blurb” (endorsement that goes on the back of a book) for fellow She Writes Press author Krista Hammerbacher Haapala’s upcoming book Body 2.0, and I am currently a quarter into Running Home by my new local writer friend Alisha Perkins. And ironically, my book club just chose to read Nora Mclnerny Purmort’s It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too).

So what is it about memoirs that keeps me coming back for more?

Probably this: I am a moth to a flame when it comes to taking a deep dive into people’s psyche. The more complex, the better. I like to learn about how people think, their experiences that shape them, and how they maneuver through life’s obstacles and the obstacles within their own minds. I love to cut through the bullshit and the formalities and get to the heart of a person. Tell me who you really are! I savor the take-me-or-leave me relationship that develops between the writer and reader, and how the writer’s rawness and vulnerability are the magnets that pull the reader in to her story, rather than the flowery words or intricate plot lines. I like the trust that develops as the writer bares his soul to his reader, and how the reader is almost always able to find pieces of herself in the writer. I like how reading memoir reveals that when we peel back our layers of protection, which most of us spend our lives building, we can see that we are not all that different from one another. We are all just trying make sense of “this thing called life” (thank you, Prince). Some are just better at pretending that they actually know what they are doing.

Which leads me to the final reason I am drawn to memoir. As a writer, a deep thinker, and a person of passion, I have my own story to tell. I told some of my story in my first book, and truth be told, the excavation process and exposing certain parts of myself that had not been exposed to many was both cathartic and excruciating. Doing so caused movement, questions, and conversations with myself, and with my friends and family. “I heard your book is very personal,” one family member who has not yet read the book said to me recently. Others have told me that after reading the first two chapters, in which I reveal some “skeletons” of my past, they felt that they wanted more—more of my story. Some people like vulnerability in themselves and in others, and some are very uncomfortable with it.

But where is the line between comfort and discomfort when telling ones story? While I am drawn to books in which writers bare their souls to their readers, and am envious of the courage it take so "live out loud," sometimes I find myself thinking about boundaries and privacy and other people's feelings. I wonder how the writer’s partner or kids feel (or will feel when the kids grow up and read the book) about the details of their lives, and the life of their mother/father/wife/husband being exposed to the masses, in a reality TV show kind of way.

Where is the line between telling one’s story and respecting the privacy of those who are directly or indirectly a part of that story? Because unless a person lives by herself on an island, her story is not just about her. It is about her family, friends, partner, and children. And where is the respectful boundary between speaking your truth and protecting the people you love and care about? Protecting their privacy and their right to own their own story, which does not always line up with the writer’s.

Which is more important? Writing one’s truth or protecting the privacy of those who are part of one’s truth?

Or maybe there is a way to do both.

What do you think?