In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, she writes:
The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the void. The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom—or rather the movement toward it—that counts.
The world—the context within which the author’s life plays out—must show up in our story as well, and this inclusion requires memoirists to “move toward wisdom”, or, as I would put it, draw connections between one’s private life and the human experience. The connections are both inherent in the lived experience as well as created in the writing experience. Gornick goes on to say:
A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved…when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
…When Rousseau observes, “I have nothing but myself to write about, and this self that I have, I hardly know of what it consists,” he is saying to the reader, “I will go in search of it in your presence. I will set down on the page a tale of experience just as I think it occurred, and together we’ll see what it exemplifies, both of us discovering as I write this self I am in search of.” And that was the beginning of memoir as we know it.
So the very movement through the self to some mystery lurking beyond is key to good literature. “Autobiography is the most fascinating thing you can do because you get to touch the human condition,” writes Jim Dine. “And in the end, what else is there? To me, it’s the ultimate affirmation of life, and a miracle of this transient, extremely fragile organism. To celebrate that, I think, is a noble thing to do.” This touching of the human condition is the opposite of the naval-gazing beginning memoirist fear; it is a profoundly contemplative, creative, and connective act. When we peer through the details of our lives to address basic human questions—who am I? what gives my life meaning?—we engage in myth-making, that fundamental act of explaining the universe.
Conversely, when we bypass the self (out of embarrassment, humility, disinterest, or concern for the reader) hoping to arrive more quickly at some nugget of wisdom, we deny our readers the journey—and the journey is what readers most want. Sure, we’re curious about what lessons you’ve learned from your breast cancer, your recovery from addiction, your climb up Mount Kilimanjaro. But we’re more interested in how you learned these lessons, because in reading your story, we might learn them as well.
Once again, this isn’t just a literary trick to please the reader. Genuine insights and revelations emerge when we include ourselves, so the experience of writing is more exciting—and scary. The more we show up in our stories, the more we have at stake. By this I mean that our investment is greater; we care more deeply about the questions our writing asks and the discoveries the process discloses. Our work becomes less about posturing and more about the ongoing formation of self, which never exists in isolation.
In story-telling, the personal doesn’t sit at one end of a see-saw across from the universal. Rather, the see-saw bends in a surprising circle. The more heart we put into our stories, the closer we come to the heart of the matter.
–Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew