One writes out of only one thing – one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. ~ James Baldwin
Because I read a lot of memoirs, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. In the hands of a skillful writer like Baldwin, the personal experience the author conveys has to be squeezed dry for every ounce of meaning, otherwise it’s nothing but litany of events, good or bad. The memoirist or personal essayist simply must mine those experiences for the way they’ve impacted his life and his being, otherwise they are meaningless to the reader.
Does it matter if your father favored you over all your siblings, bought you everything you wanted while the others went without, praised your every accomplishment while criticizing them mercilessly? It only matters if that experience changed you or molded you into the person you are today. And how about your siblings? To what extent did your father’s favoritism change them or your relationship to them?
Describing all the ways your father treated you better than the rest of the children in the family doesn’t matter if you can’t give the reader a reason to care. And they will only care if they can relate your experience – and what you’ve learned from it – to their own life. To do that, you have reflect honestly and thoughtfully on these experiences. You have to go deep into your emotional memory, not just your incidental memory.
Memoir writing has gotten something of a bad rap recently. Most likely that’s because memoirs often focus on negative circumstances in the writers life. Abuse, addiction, lost love, physical or mental impairments – these undoubtedly have a profound effect on a human life, and thus become the subject of many books. New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani wrote that “The current memoir craze has fostered the belief that confession is therapeutic, that therapy is redemptive and that redemption equals art, and it has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.”
I’m a fan of memoir, and I believe in it’s power, but I agree with Kakutani on this point: It’s worthless to expose your life experiences on the page without first examining them in your heart to determine how they might be meaningful to others. Of course that’s the hardest part, isn’t it? Examining all those experiences in the light of day, doing the soul searching it takes to make sense of them?
But nobody said this writing thing would be easy.
Or go home.