I’ve always suffered from this odd inconsistency as a writer: I love reading memoirs and I have lots of creative ideas for writing one myself, but it’s never felt acceptable to me to go there because you can’t tell your own story without involving other people.
I got round this in the memoir sections of Writing in the House of Dreams by focusing on my inner life and barely mentioning anyone in my day-to-day except my older sister, who had been dead for forty years, but it was a struggle and meant I had to leave out some of my most powerful dream experiences because they involved other family members and close friends.
I only realised this week that I’ve probably been put off writing autobiographically by a particular kind of memoir that seems to dominate the market, even having its own section in many bookshops – so-called inspirational lives, or more commonly, misery memoirs.
I’ve never actually read one of these. I don’t like the idea. Writing about traumatic childhood experiences feels like something that could be very therapeutic, but therapeutic writing is private writing for me. Therapy is about healing, and publishing this kind of book feels like something that’s more likely to put existing rifts beyond healing.
(Having said that, and in passing, this article by ghost writer, Andrew Crofts, on the excellent Authors Electric blog makes an interesting case for the misery memoir as lifting the lid on child abuse and paving the way for the current exposure of people like Jimmy Savile.)
But there are lots of different motivations for writing autobiography besides therapy or a desire for justice, and I’ve had to give some thought to those in planning my upcoming Writing Your Life workshops.
As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction and the owner of an examined life, I suspect that writing memoir may be my natural speed. It’s certainly the kind of writing I feel most alarmed by, and the things you fear almost always turn out to be your greatest opportunities.
I’ve got some ideas for telling some of the stories of my life which feel exciting and intriguing but, in the meantime, I’ve just bought a book called Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, edited by Meredith Maran. I’m hoping it’ll help me develop my thinking. I’ll let you know if it does.