The Art of the Memoir
Great memoirs implicitly tackle the subject of identity, weaving together a cohesive self from a jumble of experiences, influences and, yes, imperfect memories. But what propels authors to write a memoir, and what compels us to read them? Join three masters of award-winning and best-selling works who dared such examination and reflection as they discuss the risks and rewards of writing a memoir.
- 2019 Festival
Publishing a memoir means sharing deeply personal stories for anyone to read. Sure, memoirists get to choose what they write, but it usually takes a pretty compelling story to make it on bookshelves. So why would anyone share stories that could bring all sorts of scrutiny to not just their lives, but the lives of people close to them? Writer Richard Blanco explains:
Memoirs allow artists to discover things about themselves. Some confront childhood trauma, others broken relationships or newfound joy. But Blanco says the act of writing, rewriting, and codifying those feelings in a text helps bring clarity and closure.
Our memories are fickle at best, and if you ask two people to describe the same event you’ll always get different versions. Author Kiese Laymon says that when readers approach memoirs expecting hard facts, they’re bound to be let down. Instead of some quixotic pursuit of truthfulness, Laymon explains that he strives for honesty and integrity in his writing:
“It hurts when your version of truth collides with somebody else’s version of truth,” says Laymon. By transcending a strict adherence to truth, memoirists can write a story that, in some ways, more honestly reflects a situation than an attempt at truthfulness ever could.
Do memoirists think of the impact that their stories might have? When they’re writing a work, do they think of how it will be received and what good might come of it? In response to an audience member wondering what kind of thought goes into impact, the whole panel weighs in:
This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity
Dani Shapiro: If I was sitting down to write thinking I was going to help people, I wouldn’t write as well… I’m trying to connect with people. This new book of mine is helping people, but as I was writing it, I was trying to tell the story and trying to place the story in a larger context. So there’s an extraordinary experience in realizing there’s a purpose to it, but a self-consciousness can set in if a writer sits down to think, ‘Now I’m going to sit down to help people.’
Richard Blanco: I think ‘connect’ is the perfect word.. and when those moments happen it’s great, but that’s not what keeps us writing per se. It is, though, just knowing and trusting that your honesty and life will be a mirror to someone else. That’s why we do what we do, but not consciously
Erika Mallin: [to Laymon] But do you feel that way?
Kiese Laymon: I definitely feel like it’s for a greater good… The act of writing books to [James] Baldwin, to my mother, to Margo Walker Alexander, is a liberatory act because I was aggressively taught not to see those people as audience to whom I could write. Your audience sort of dictates, I think, the integrity and calibrations of your art. So I’m definitely trying to write to black folks in the deep south, I’m trying to write for black folks in the deep south, with an understanding that people outside the deep south will take part in it. But I know who my primary audience is.
There’s something about hearing an author’s work in their own voice than can bring a whole new meaning to a story. Hear Kiese Laymon, Dani Shapiro, and Richard Blanco read excerpts from their own works: