What happened? To answer that, it helps to consider what gave rise to the personal essay’s ubiquity in the first place. Around 2008, several factors converged. In preceding years, private blogs and social platforms—LiveJournal, Blogspot, Facebook—trained people to write about their personal lives at length and in public. As Silvia Killingsworth, who was previously the managing editor of The New Yorker and took over the Awl and the Hairpin last year, put it to me, “People love to talk about themselves, and they were given a platform and no rules.” Then the invisible hand of the page-view economy gave them a push: Web sites generated ad revenue in direct proportion to how many “eyeballs” could be attracted to their offerings, and editorial budgets had contracted in the wake of the recession. The forms that became increasingly common—flashy personal essays, op-eds, and news aggregation—were those that could attract viral audiences on the cheap.
Sarah Hepola, who worked as Salon’s personal-essay editor, described the situation to me in an e-mail. “The boom in personal essays—at Salon, at least, but I suspect other places—was in part a response to an online climate where more content was needed at the exact moment budgets were being slashed.” When I worked as an editor at the Hairpin and Jezebel, from 2013 to 2016, I saw up close how friendly editors and ready audiences could implicitly encourage writers to submit these pieces in droves. For the first two years that I edited personal essays, I received at least a hundred first-person pitches and pieces each week.
Where the personal essay explores, free from any need to interpret, the memoir interprets, analyzes, and seeks the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The memoir continually asks the following questions:
In this sense, the memoir is heavier than the personal essay, and it mines the past to shed light on the present. The memoir seeks to make sense of an individual life. The questions that are left unanswered in Wole Soyinka’s essay from the personal essay resource, Why do I Fast? are answered in the memoir.
In Session 2 you’ll learn: 1) How to outline your essay in a step-by-step way, 2) What are some challenges you should consider writing about, 3) How to connect your challenges to your future career, 4) What to write about if you haven’t faced any challenges or if you have no idea what to write about, 5) How much sharing is too much? plus I’ll analyze four more awesome essays.
When you write your own family history, don’t try to be a “writer.” It now occurs to me that my father, who didn’t try to be a writer, was a more natural writer than I am, with my constant fiddling and fussing. Be yourself and your readers will follow you anywhere. Try to commit an act of writing and your readers will jump overboard to get away. Your product is you. The crucial transaction in memoir and personal history is the transaction between you and your remembered experiences and emotions.
I mention this because one of the questions often asked by memoir writers is: should I write from the point of view of the child I once was, or of the adult I am now? The strongest memoirs, I think, are those that preserve the unity of a remembered time and place: books like Russell Baker’s Growing Up, or V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door, or Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain, which recall what it was like to be a child or an adolescent in a world of adults contending with life’s adversities.
But if you prefer the other route—to write about your younger years from the wiser perspective of your older years—that memoir will have its own integrity. One good example is Poets in Their Youth, in which Eileen Simpson recalls her life with her first husband, John Berryman, and his famously self-destructive fellow poets, including Robert Lowell and Delmore Schwartz, whose demons she was too young as a bride to understand. When she revisited that period as an older woman in her memoir she had become a writer and a practicing psychotherapist, and she used that clinical knowledge to create an invaluable portrait of a major school of American poetry at the high tide of its creativity. But these are two different kinds of writing. Choose one.
Writers are the custodians of memory, and that’s what you must become if you want to leave some kind of record of your life and of the family you were born into. That record can take many shapes. It can be a formal memoir—a careful act of literary construction. Or it can be an informal family history, written to tell your children and your grandchildren about the family they were born into. It can be the oral history that you extract by tape recorder from a parent or a grandparent too old or too sick to do any writing. Or it can be anything else you want it to be: some hybrid mixture of history and reminiscence. Whatever it is, it’s an important kind of writing. Too often memories die with their owner, and too often time surprises us by running out.
For example, if Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir about raising a child in the White House, she would be pulling in tidbits about how she handled the media, who she let visit her daughter during sleepovers and how she navigated the politics of parenting during her time in the White House.
Likewise, if Madonna was writing a memoir about reinventing herself after 20 years away from the public spotlight, she most likely would include what it felt like to return to the music scene and how she continued to travel and perform while raising her children.
Over the last few years of memoir writing and teaching, I hope you can make it to the event and will follow my posts on this subject of how to write a powerful memoir in the coming days!