It seems every six months or so there’s a new viral essay disparaging memoir. They bemoan the fact that hoards of narcissistic memoirists are clogging up our MFA programs and slush piles, poisoning the minds of the reading public with confessional junk food and ultimately edging out the real writers (i.e. journalists and fiction writers), who actually have something important to say. You know, really important stuff, like essays trashing an entire genre.
I generally stay out of the line of fire, mostly because I’m too busy actually writing something to stop to defend it. Besides, I can usually count on Stephen Elliott over at The Rumpus to handle it better than I could (as he does here). I agree with Stephen when he says:
Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.
It’s easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem.
It’s never the form that’s the problem and it’s never the subject that’s the problem. Russell Banks once said to me, “A book is never about what it’s ‘about.’” I loved that. I think about it a lot, and let it remind me that what’s important is the heart of a thing, not the hat it’s wearing.
I was drawn to confessional work long before I ever sat at my desk and turned my own life inside out looking for some kind of truth. When I was twenty, I saw a Louise Bourgeois (pictured above) retrospective in Paris about twelve times. I knew I wanted to do what she did. I had no idea what my medium was going to be, but I got that she was using self to transcend self, and I felt instinctively that therein lay my destiny.
Confessional work has always been essential to the artistic expression of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the voices for whom mainstream avenues of education and distribution aren’t readily accessible. For feminist artists and writers in the 60s and 70s, confession was a political statement. It’s a tradition I’m proud to inherit. Some of my favorite gut-spillers include Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Dieter Roth, Tracy Emin, Nan Goldin, Kathryn Harrison, Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr.
I consider the process of confessional writing to be neither cathartic nor exhibitionistic. Rather, I think of it as a sacrifice. I sacrifice my life to the muses, the gods, the world, and hope that it will be of use to someone. The gift I receive in return is that I get to live with a sense of purpose- a reason for noticing, for listening, for trying to be aware and present in any given moment.
There are people who can better defend the confessional genre than I, on grounds aesthetic and political. But I can speak from the inside of the creative process and say that we don’t choose our medium, it chooses us. The derogatory essays always seem to imply that if we memoirists were less solipsistic and more talented, we would choose to write about something else. But writing is never a choice, it’s a calling. For me, at least, I find it way too hard to be strategic and calculating. I don’t sit down and say, “Hmmm… What important thing can I write about today?” I sit down and I pray.