On Memoir

All of these articles are from a collection called Self Portrait. There are more articles in the collection than the four I have chosen to focus on here. All of the articles deal with how or why to write about oneself, and what happens when someone does.

25 Famous Women on Writing Their Own Stories

Whether writing a memoir, personal essay, confessional blog post, or private journal, examining your own life is far from easy — even for the professionals. For this week’s Self-Portrait series, we’ve rounded up 25 women’s thoughts on the joys and struggles encountered by female writers in telling their stories. Read on for their wisdom on everything from the tricky nature of memory, to sexism in the literary world, to the question of other people’s privacy.

Read more of what these women have to say:

1. Maya Angelou

Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me.

2. Cheryl Strayed

I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.

3. Lena Dunham

I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences.

4. Zadie Smith

I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.

5. Nora Ephron

In the way I grew up, we knew that you might write about almost anything if you could just find a way to tell the story.

6. Roxane Gay

Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable.

7. Joan Didion

We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.

8. Elizabeth Wurtzel

The reason it’s very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I’m just like everybody else. I know when I describe what’s happening with me that it’s going to ring true to other people.

9. bell hooks

One of the things that I found, as I tried to cross boundaries, was that I had to give people something that allowed them to identify with what I was saying, and not just offer some abstract idea that might not have any relevance to their lives.

10. Elizabeth Gilbert

It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires.

11. Maxine Hong Kingston

What is universal? There could be some peculiarity that you have in your self, but if you can make it an art, make it part of a story, then when another person reads it, it becomes part of his or her life. And so one’s odd self and ideas become part of the human universal story.

12. Meghan Daum

Honesty is not the same as confession … Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions.

13. Alison Bechdel

For most of the time I was working on this book I found myself in varying degrees of self-loathing.

14. Jesmyn Ward

The memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was so hard for me that I plan to never write another memoir again.

15. Mindy Kaling

You can choose not to write about your embarrassments and things that make you feel vulnerable, but it’s not like people can’t see them anyway.

16. Diane Keaton

I did discover things about myself in the process of having made the choice to write a memoir.

17. Sandra Cisneros

The only reason we write — well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize — is so that I can find out something about myself.

18. Janet Mock

I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent ‘difference.’

19. Sloane Crosley

There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning.

20. Audre Lorde

With any oppressed people — and this is true of women, although it started with the Black poets — the ability to speak out of your experience and see it as valid, to deal with your definition of self and recognize that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem.

21. Leslie Jamison

I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience.

22. Janet Malcolm

Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. … The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins.

23. Marjane Satrapi

Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil.

24. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Of course, not all fiction is honest, but fiction, by its very nature, creates the possibility of a certain kind of radical honesty that memoir does not.

25. Stevie Nicks

I won’t write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care.

How to Write Someone Else’s Memoir

Maureen O’Connor writes about the ghostwriters responsible for a lot of the celebrity memoirs that we read:

Intimacy is the currency of memoir, and to preserve that feeling of direct access, the ghost’s job is, quite literally, to disappear.

While some ghostwriters have enough credentials to land them co-author status, most must accept a contract that pays well but requires them to keep their authorship a secret.

Isn’t a memoir written by someone else actually a biography? No, one prolific ghostwriter told O’Connor:

“Biographies are about looking at that person from the outside,” whereas “memoir is really trying to give the reader this person’s experience.”

How many celebrity memoirs are ghostwritten? A senior editor at a major publishing house told O’Connor, “I’d reckon 95 percent of memoirs by public figures involve a ghostwriter to some degree.”

O’Connor also discovered that “The problem with writing an article about ghostwriters is that nobody will go on the record.”

I Made Sense of My Childhood by Reading the Memoirs of Maya Angelou and June Jordan

Naomi Jackson pays tribute to the women whose memoirs taught her that she, “the child of working-class West Indian parents,” could become a writer.

About Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which she read at age 12 or 13, Jackson writes “Her book showed me that it was possible to survive the scrapes of a rough childhood and to come out on the other side as a whole person.” In college Jackson came across June Jordan’s Soldier:

Reading Jordan’s memoir prodded me to consider writing about my own life; it convinced me of the value of my story, which I wasn’t sure anyone cared about until then, and illustrated the benefit of writers’ bravery in breaking the taboo, especially strong in Caribbean communities, of telling family secrets.

The lesson that Jackson learned from reading these two memoirs was that “books could help heal readers.” Those books taught Jackson that writing the truth would make her stronger and would also help strengthen readers of the books she wrote.

What I Left Out of My Memoir

Mac McClelland’s memoir, Irritable Hearts, is “about grappling with post-traumatic-stress and major-depressive disorders.” She wrote the book because “reading it from someone else during the grappling would have helped me feel less ashamed.”

Yet there was one detail in the original manuscript that a friend warned her about:

“You and I both know that some people won’t bother reading beyond that. It’s easy for a reviewer to pull that detail out of the book and throw it into a review, out of context.”

McClelland never tells us what that detail was, but she does explain why she chose to leave it out because its inclusion would have detracted from the larger story about the nature of trauma that she had to tell.

The point of a memoir is not just to narrate events that occurred, but rather to shape those events so as to find their meaning. Sometimes figuring out what to omit can be just as hard as—or even harder than—knowing what to include.