By Dan Shewan
In 2006, when James Frey admitted to Oprah Winfrey and millions of television viewers that he had fabricated a significant amount of his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces, many members of the literati speculated that this would be the end of the “memoir craze” that had begun with the publication of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.
Contrary to expectations, memoir continued to become a major force in the publishing industry. Readers couldn’t get enough of shocking, tell-all revelations from their favorite celebrities, and the public’s appetite for deeply personal writing has become insatiable. Everyone from Neil Young to Mike Tyson has jumped firmly on the bandwagon, and what many suspected to be a passing fad looks set to stay, at least for the time being.
But what does this mean for writers trying to craft careers in writing nonfiction? Specifically, those lacking the kind of salacious stories that have proven so popular with readers? Writers who don’t have firsthand experiences of drug addiction? Who didn’t grow up in abusive homes? Who’ve never spent time in jail? Sharing moments that seem shocking, that provide readers with a voyeuristic glimpse into another life far removed from their own, is relatively easy. Finding meaning and truth in the banality of everyday life is far more challenging.
Renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung famously opined that our most personal experiences are the most universal. This observation presents the personal essayist with a somewhat unique predicament. While our most intimate moments, the ones we furtively conceal from the world, provide us with the opportunity to invite others to share in those experiences, they also force us to overcome the familiar obstacle of offering the reader a fresh perspective on a common situation.
In the past, I explored my own struggles with drinking through my writing, one of the few areas of my relatively comfortable life that I felt had the potential to become a compelling piece of work. Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, the experience was unsurprisingly cathartic, but what seemed like a more profound revelation at the time was not the ease with which I shared some of my darkest secrets, but the selfishness and indulgence I felt while writing about myself. Even now, the idea of writing personal essays and memoir seems to me less of an exploration of my own experiences, and more of an exercise in self gratification. Many writers do not share this anxiety, but I suspect that more than a few of us experience this sense of indulgence while trying to write engaging personal essays and nonfiction.
In her excellent book, Naked, Drunk, and Writing, columnist and author Adair Lara describes writing personal essays and memoir as a two-part process; begin by writing with a “hot heart,” sparing no detail, no matter how vulnerable it may make us feel, before turning the “cold eye” of the detached observer on the work. As I applied this principle to my own essay, the challenge of making a very common experience both universal to the reader and highly personal to me became painfully evident.
Writing engaging memoirs, personal essays, and creative nonfiction requires perhaps even greater oversight that writing good fiction. Even stories told in the first-person allow the author to remain slightly detached from the experiences of their protagonist in a way that personal essays and memoirs do not. While the death of a loved one, the pain of a divorce, or the joy of becoming a parent are perhaps the most defining moments of our lives, writing about them in a way that says something new is a considerable challenge. Although the concepts of premise, reflective voice, and epiphany should be nothing new to memoirists and writers of personal essays, separating the complexities of our own feelings, recollections, and perspectives from the truth of the events that have defined our past and shaped our present is far more difficult than some writers may think.
Fortunately, the popularity of memoirs and personal essays provides us with both ample opportunities to publish our work, and to improve our craft. While the public’s appetite for revealing personal stories remains undiminished, the prevalence of excellent writing in the genre demands that we pay closer attention to our work; that we ask the difficult questions, and that we edit ourselves ruthlessly in pursuit of those insightful, and universal, truths.
Writers of memoirs and personal essays don’t need to have done a stint in rehab. They don’t need to come from broken homes, or have suffered physical or emotional abuse. Something as seemingly trite as the anxiety of a job interview can be a rich and fertile landscape for the personal essayist – if they can relate that experience in a way that is unique to their life, while remaining accessible, familiar, and perhaps even comforting to the reader.
James Frey shamelessly embellished key moments from his past for the sake of commercial success. However, while morally and ethically reprehensible, what is most disappointing about Frey’s deception is not that he intentionally deceived his readers, but that he failed to remain true to himself. By sharing our most intimate moments with the world, we owe it to ourselves, the people who become unwitting characters in our work, and our readers to reveal those universal experiences in a way that is both compelling and brutally honest.
In A Million Little Pieces, Frey wrote that, “More than anything, all I have ever wanted is to feel as if I wasn’t alone.” It is this need to forge connections with our readers, to share those universal experiences, that should drive our work, even when it feels impossible.
Originally from London, Dan Shewan currently resides in New England. His nonfiction has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and he is a contributor to the poetry section of The Rumpus and the news section of LitReactor. Although careful to avoid stereotypes, he enjoys single-malt Scotch whiskey and long, brooding walks. Having gathered an extensive collection of rejection notices from many major publications, he is currently working on his first novel.