The real subject of autobiography is not one’s experience but one’s consciousness. Memoirists use the self as a tool. –Patricia Hampl
Perhaps because I’m entering my twenty-third year of teaching writing, I’m getting curmudgeonly about memoir. I still revere fine examples in the genre, but the vast majority of memoir seems myopic and disengaged. Published works irritate me the most; I read a memoir like Sheryl Strayed’s Wild and run screaming back to the classics to recover. Memoirs-in-process at least contain the possibility of improving.
The amateur writers I work with fear that memoir is selfish, but this isn’t my gripe. “You may keep the self-centered material—that’s all we writers have to work with!” writes Carol Bly. The self is a wonderfully worthy subject. Perhaps what grates on me is a distinctly American understanding of the self, obsessed with personal pain and disturbingly isolated. I am interested in the self defined by and defining its surrounding community; the self as a pawn of and player in history; the self in dialogue with others—neighbors and readers and those long dead and those yet to be born; the self as an inhabitant of the natural world; the self as a window onto our shared humanity and our extraordinary differences. We are each so broken and insignificant, and yet also magnificent. I’m interested in the paradoxes and revelations of the self.
Memoir works best when the self becomes a lens—a consciousness, as Hampl calls it, especially consciousness of material beyond the self. Another way to say this is that memoir succeeds when it shows the self in relationship to some subject, aware of this relationship, and exploring the relationship with curiosity and acumen.
As a culture we desperately need literature that connects our small lives to larger stories of struggle and meaning. I’m beginning to believe that writers have a moral responsibility not just to craft good stories but to create stories that build connections between people rather than breaking them down. On second thought, morality has nothing to do with it. The stories that build connections are simply better stories.