As the author of two memoirs, I have gotten accustomed to people being curious about how I manage to deal with the embarrassment/shame/guilt of recording such personal information about my life, for all to see. Why do I want to write all that stuff down?
For starters, I have to clarify that by the time I am writing about a particular experience, the story is no longer about the current me; it is about the me of another time, a past me, a younger me, a me who had not yet learned the lesson that I am trying to describe in the piece I am creating.
In other words, I write to get some retroactive introspection. I have never been a journal keeper, a detail I mention because many writers, and especially memoirists, recount lifetimes of journaling. The journals become the basis for their books. Unfortunately, I have never been that disciplined or organized. I do, however, have that type of mind onto which things get emblazoned. The point being that when I am finally ready to make sense of a particular story, I actually need to write it down, to work out how it all connects.
The reason I write about such personal stuff is because I cannot stand small talk. It’s probably why I became a therapist, too. I like to get straight to the heart of the matter – mine or the other persons. When I write about how mad or sad I was at a certain time, or how I behaved badly, or did something weird, I actually feel a tremendous sense of relief. Releasing the story for all the world to read is my way of saying “I don’t have secrets, I am not ashamed.” By admitting what a twerp/flake/wreck I was, and how I learned from my own bizarre behavior, I feel liberated to move on and hopefully avoid making the same mistakes twice.
The greatest compliment I have received regarding my writing is how starkly honest it is, although that feedback is often followed with the question, “aren’t you afraid of being judged?” The truth is yes, I am afraid of being judged, but there is no way to please everyone. I am going to be judged negatively by someone no matter what I write. I have had some readers say that I am the most selfish, pathetic person ever. Of course that hurts. But I would hate it more if readers said, “what a bore,” or “this story did not make me think at all.”
There is an enormous gap between what the traditional publishing establishment (or at least the segment of agents and publishing houses that I have interacted with) considers commercially viable and what I consider to be the part of my life worth writing about. Both of my books got rejection after rejection from the traditional establishment because they said I spent too much time talking about “difficult” things like my “complicated” marriage, or identity loss, or being culturally different from my children. The mainstream doesn’t want “difficult,” I was told. They want to be entertained.
I don’t buy it. When I think of some of the “complicated and difficult” situations I have been in, I know that while in the thick of it I would have killed for someone to give me a book that mirrored what I was going through. If I can use my stories to teach others, then I feel that whatever mistakes I have made served a larger social purpose. And that feels really good. It makes whatever negative judgements I have to contend with worth it.
*Written originally for the fabulous Tendayi Chirawu’s blog, reprinted here because I have been too busy lately to create new material for the blog!