Motives for Memoir

In June 2010, Tobias Wong, a designer troubled by night terrors and sleep walking, hung himself.  Writer Kathleen Frazier was deeply shaken. For twenty years, she too suffered from sleep walking and night terrors. One night, Frazier awoke to find herself beside a seventh-story window. She began a recovery process that liberated her from this disabling and dangerous parasomnia that effects two to three percent of adults.

Frazier, reading from her memoir-in-progress in January, 2011 at Cornelia Cafe in New York, said she vowed to write about her malady and recovery so others know they can be healed.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr, poet, essayist and memoirist

Motives for memoir can be complex. Some, like Frazier, share their own story so others need not suffer alone. Speaking with the same humor with which she writes, memoir writer Mary Karr said she wrote because she had no other choice. “What else was I going to be [besides a writer],” she asked. “A titty dancer?”

Karr spoke at the New Yorker Festival’s “The Parent Trap: Philip Gourevitch with Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff,” on October 1, 2010 in New York. Yet she too offers a message of hope. For me, reading Lit was like going through alcoholism recovery with Harvard professors as one’s guides.

Tobias Wolff said that writing This Boy’s Life, a memoir of his childhood in Newhalem and Concrete, Washington, provided “a tremendous lift, like you’re being born aloft.”

In a note I jotted from a New Yorker article, the writer states, “the successfully distanced authorial self, [is]suddenly able to depict the ‘inner self’ by seeing it as a foreigner….in the act of composition, the self splits….into subject and object.” This appears similar to a process that can take place during meditation, where the meditator separates from herself and becomes an observer, which in turn becomes an entry into trance.

Perhaps this is what J.M. Coetzee seeks when writing about his life. Summertime, for example, is presented as fiction. Part of his life story is presented as interviews with five imaginary characters who knew a now-dead writer named John Coetzee.

Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff, short story writer, novelist, memoirist

One, a former lover, quotes the late John: “If I yielded to the seduction of not working, what would I do with myself? What would there be to live for? I would have to shoot myself.”

David Sexton, Literary editor of the Evening Standard, believes this  exemplifies Coetzee’s “commitment to express himself only in the writing that he can control. …. This is a writer who believes that ‘all autobiography is storytelling, all storytelling is autobiography.”

Louise Desalvo, Jenny Hunter Endowed Scholar for Creative Writing and Literature, writes biography, fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. In this post to her wonderful blog, writingalife, she addresses the purpose of writing in the first or third person:

I often write the material in the third person on the first round – using “she,” not “I.” Sometimes, as in Vertigo, when I relate a childhood depression, and when I describe an instance of abuse, I’ve chosen to keep the third person in the published text. ….. After some time has passed, I take the third person recounting, and recast it as first person. It seems, for me, that going at the material using third person the first time around provides me with the kind of distance I need to get at the material.

For those not willing or able to bare themselves in a memoir-writing class, Desalvo’s blog offers gentle and detailed private instruction.

“I see Ella, walking slowly about a big empty room, thinking, waiting. I, Anna, see Ella. Who is, of course, Anna. But that is the point, for she is not. The moment I, Anna, write: Ella rings up Julia…then Ella floats away from me and becomes someone else…. It’s enough to call her Ella, instead of Anna.” – The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing

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