Thursday, January 10, 2013

Memoir or masochism?

A few days ago, a Gawker story about narcissism vs. journalism led me to this New York Times Opinionator essay from writing teacher Susan Shapiro. Shapiro is famous (infamous?) for assigning her students, as their first piece, three pages confessing their most humiliating secrets.

If I were interested in taking a writing class, and found out that an assignment like this would be part of it, I would lose interest in that class right away.

If I were actually in a class, and the teacher sprung this assignment on us, I would make something up. I’m not joking.

My life belongs to me. Not the public. Not some writing teacher who thinks this is the only way to sell work. I decide what to reveal and what not to. To coerce personal stories from someone else is, I believe, a form of rape.

Some things are none of your goddamn business.

There. I said it, and I am proud of it.

I just wish more people would do the same.

Once upon a time, the confessional memoir was rare – and it played an important role in bringing hidden issues out of the closet. Lillian Roth’s autobiography I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1954) shone a light on how alcoholism could knock even the most talented person down – but not out. And Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest (1978) was a horrifying trip through a battered childhood.

Fast forward to today, and memoirs about alcoholism, child abuse – and any other issue you can think of – are not rare at all. Whether they come in the form of a book or a blog, you can find thousands of variations of this tale: “My life sucked, but I overcame it.”

Unfortunately, repetition diminishes impact. How many times can you hear the same story before you can’t care anymore? (Also, telling a story is not the same as solving a problem.)

Now, I am by no means encouraging people with past or present issues in their lives to just shut up and not write about them at all. I am urging awareness of the difference between writing as therapy for you and writing as a good story for everyone else.

If you want to connect with a wide audience, you have to have more to your story than “My life sucked, but I overcame it.”

Consider transforming your story into a piece of fiction. That gives you more creative freedom.

Ask yourself if your story has an angle which doesn’t get much media play. Hundreds have written about being victims of sexual abuse, but Meredith Maran wrote about not being a victim of sexual abuse in her memoir, My Lie: A True Story of False Memory.

Always remember that humiliating personal stories are not the only ones which can pack a punch, no matter what Susan Shapiro says. Why not look outward? Don’t point your magnifying glass on your backside; point your spyglass out at the world.

Meandering Mouse is a personal blog, but that is not the same as a confessional blog. I write it to show interesting parts of the world to you, not to humiliate myself. I am proud of this mission, and see no need to change it.

I own my story. And you own yours, too.

Treat it well.

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