Why We Write About Ourselves (edited) by Meredith Maran

  • Title: Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
  • Editor: Meredith Maran
  • # of Pages: 254

For the many amateurs and professionals who write about themselves—bloggers, journal-keepers, aspiring essayists, and memoirists—this book offers inspiration, encWhy We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literatureouragement, and pithy, practical advice. Twenty of America’s bestselling memoirists share their innermost thoughts and hard-earned tips with veteran author Meredith Maran, revealing what drives them to tell their personal stories, and the nuts and bolts of how they do it. Speaking frankly about issues ranging from turning oneself into an authentic, compelling character to exposing hard truths, these successful authors disclose what keeps them going, what gets in their way, and what they love most—and least—about writing about themselves.

I love memoirs. Short, long; old, young; essay style or full-fledged story; it doesn’t matter. I read memoirs by people I know and memoirs by people I’ve never heard of (and probably never will again). Sometimes I’m drawn by the story they tell, sometimes I just like their way of telling it. I’m fascinated by the ability to turn a personal experience into a universal one, an experience strangers, who have never met you, want to listen to, even feel a part of. We don’t always have to escape into fiction; sometimes plain old reality already has the brilliant characters and gripping plot. (And let’s all admit it, it’s always exciting to look up these people on Facebook afterwards and see all the characters commenting on photos in real life!)

The format here is simple: a chapter per person. There’s an introduction written by Maran, a quick summary of said person’s personal life and publishing history, and then a sort of freestyle, not exactly interview yet not exactly essay section written by the memoirists themselves. There are no leading questions which gives each one the opportunity to discuss whatever they want to, although most cover the basics: how I started, why I started, what the future holds for me. Every chapter ends with a “Wisdom for Memoir Writers”.

I picked up Why We Write About Ourselves in order to understand a bit more about the genre, about how those who write it do it, and why. I recognized a few of the twenty contributors, I’d actually read only a few. I wasn’t bothered much by that since, as I said, the “who” doesn’t matter to me. If someone has a good story, it’ll be good even without a proper background check and Wikipedia review. That theory definitely proved true.

One of the interesting topics that kept repeating themselves was the approach when it came to revealing personal stories in which others involved: should you do it? How do you decide, how far do you go, how can it go wrong? This issue is covered from several points of view, ranging from avoiding it at all costs to following the truth all the way through. It’s an interesting dilemma – our stories are never only ours; we share them with those around us. If so, whose right is it to tell them?

If there’s one thing everyone agreed on it’s that if you feel comfortable, you’re not doing it right. Whether you write because it’s therapeutic or painful or because there’s some inner power pushing you to do it, the real stories lie right beyond that point you usually stop at when you’re sitting around with friends and talking about the good ol’ days. Writing memoir requires being able to dig deep, and digging deep requires shattering the surface.

And yet, the real reason I was disappointed with the book, despite the solid, interesting and diverse choice of contributors, was that I was expecting it to be written in the same style that cause me to want to read it in the first place. There was something slightly… staged in the way everything was presented. The beauty in memoirs, for me, is the ability to turn everything into a story, without dividing it up into questions and answers, theories and conclusions. It’s art. Why We Write About Ourselves is not art. It’s not exactly an interview either because in some ways the stories still manage to break through – these are memoirists writing, after all –  but it definitely has a more formal feel to it, which wasn’t what I was expecting nor what I was looking forward to.

All in all, I think Why We Write About Ourselves is a well written behind-the-scenes peek into the world behind memoirs. It was smart, even entertaining at times, and definitely made me add a few books to my TBR list. It tackled good, challenging questions and offered up a mix of thought provoking opinions and answers. If only it went about it in the way memoirs do.


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