The take-away: If you have ever wondered what the “right” motivation might be to write about yourself, or if you’re wondering why so many successful writers try their hand at memoir, Why We Write About Ourselves will provide some answers, as well as leave you with more questions about why people publish in this most intimate of nonfiction genres.
The Review: Memoir emerged as a hot genre in publishing between 1990 and 2010, quite possibly because it allows us a look inside the lives of others. But what motivates authors to expose themselves through sharing parts of their private lives and lesser known backstories with us?
Why We Write About Ourselves supplies the reflections of 20 authors who have published at least one memoir. They range from authors primarily known for their autobiographical work, such as Cheryl Strayed and Sandra Tsing Loh, to writers who have published only one book about their personal experiences, such as Edwidge Danticat. The volume is edited by Meredith Maran, who published her first memoir, Chamisa Road, when she was just 19.
Each chapter begins with a helpful introduction to the author, which summarizes their life story and highlights of their writing career. This provides more than adequate context for the author-provided sections that follow, which discuss their motivation to write a memoir, how they handled sensitive material and relationships with those they wrote about, how they have incorporated autobiographical material into fictional stories, and much more.
Almost to a person, these memoirists agree on one thing: the topics they covered in their memoir could be handled in no other way. Danticat muses, “Each time I write memoir, in short or long form, something happens that compels me to do it — something that feels pressing and urgent, something that there is no other way to express.” Ayelet Waldman writes, “I never decided to write a memoir … It just happened. At some point I realized that I had more to say about the subject of motherhood than could fit in an essay or even a few essays.”
Beyond that commonality, the 20 authors show a great deal of diversity, both in terms of life experiences and approaches to writing. Each chapter concludes with tips drawn from the writer’s remarks, which should prove helpful to aspiring memoirists.
Although it is meant for those intending to share their personal memories with the world, Why We Write About Ourselves is a good book to review when looking for inspiration related to a personal or family history project. (It could also offer some talking points when approaching a reluctant narrator.) The shining theme of the book — that people continue to seek out memoirs because there is universal meaning to be derived from the particulars of each person’s story — is something that drives all work rooted in personal reflections.