Successful memoir’s paradox: it’s both achingly personal & totally universal.

The good writer seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the Universe which runs through himself and all things.—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Recently in the New York Times Book Review, Dani Shapiro discussed the dilemma of being a serial memoirist:

Dani Shapiro

[Dani Shapiro: the serial memoirist’s plight.]

When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling precisely what the story requires. It is along the knife’s edge of this discipline that the story becomes larger, more likely to touch the “thread of the Universe,” Emerson’s beautiful phrase. In this way, a writer might spiral ever deeper into one or two themes throughout a lifetime —theme, after all, being a literary term for obsession—while illuminating something new and electrifying each time.

But some readers of memoir are looking for secrets, for complete transparency on the part of the author, as if the point is confession, and the process of reading memoir, a voyeuristic one. This idea of transparency troubles me, and is, I think, at the root of the serial memoirist’s plight. My goal when I sit down to write out of my own circumstances is not to make myself transparent. In fact, I am building an edifice. Stone by stone, I am constructing a story. Brick by brick, I am learning what image, what memory belongs to what.

Shapiro makes subtle and profound distinctions. Distinctions between publishing memoir and privately journaling. Between personal writing and mainstream journalism. Between life stories and idle gossip. Between settling scores and discovering deeper truths. This is invaluable in extending the conversation on memoir, and in helping refine understanding of the burgeoning genre.

Dani Shapiro: demons haunt your pages because they already exist.

Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.—Henry David Thoreau

Shapiro-Still Writing

Neat sentiment, Henry David, and it seems apt for Shapiro, who has quoted it herself. Her love is writing, and especially chewing over the past in memoir. Maybe she counts among her four memoirs referred to in the Times her latest book, which I’ve been reading, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Her website says it’s “at once a memoir, meditation on the artistic process, and advice on craft . . .” I’m impressed by Shapiro’s frankness and depth. She addresses directly critics’ charges or anyone’s fear of wallowing, of having a different story than your siblings do, of inflicting on others your navel-gazing. Given this backdrop, and our societal and human interest in moving on, she seems rather brave. I flagged a couple passages on Page 135:

To write is to have an ongoing dialogue with your own pain. To scream to it, with it, from it. To know it—to know it cold. Whether you’re writing a biography of Abraham Lincoln, a philosophical treatise, or a work of fiction, you are facing your demons because they are there. To be alone in a room with yourself and the contents of your mind is, in effect, to go to this place, whether you intend to or not. . . .

The mess is holy. What we inherit—and how we come to understand what we inherit—is all we have to work with. There is beauty in what is. Every day, when I sit down to work, I travel to that place. Not because I’m a masochist. Not because I live in the past. But because my words are my pickaxe . . .

Maybe this is why writers, or at least memoirists, get comfortable with using memories that might disturb others to broadcast. The wonder is why some writers—we’ve all read them—are not crippled by guilt or pain. The reasons for resilience must vary. But it seems to me that, at base, everyone must start with love for literary art. Love for its beauty in form and content, a beauty that rests finally on honesty.

That’s such a high bar! Implied in it is the highest honesty—the ability to see your story from different angles, to see another’s burden and story, to interrogate your own settled master narrative. I think this is what Shapiro means when, reflecting the influence of Buddhism, she quotes Jack Kornfield, author of A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life:

all of life can be summed up in these three words: not always so.

She mentions Steven Millhauser’s impressive New Yorker story, “Getting Closer,” about a nine-year-old boy’s sudden awareness of time—after which, everything for him is forever changed. Memoirists might well ask themselves, Shapiro suggests, why they’re telling the story now? What has changed? This of course points, once again, to the fair-minded writer at the desk now, struggling to understand, and gracefully share, the meaning of what happened to her so long ago.


  • Richard, I want to thank you for the lovely reflections you come up with regarding the writers you review, the connections you make between them and others, not always obvious connections by any means, but always well thought out, and the deep research you do into their backgrounds and references to bring us your wonderful posts. I hope you will keep doing so for a long time to come.

    • Richard says:

      You are welcome, Victoria, and thank you for reading and commenting. Having just celebrated the blog’s 8th birthday, I’m now in my 9th year of blogging! No telling how long I’ll go, but right now I’m still enjoying it. I do like making connections if I can, and sometimes that means chasing down and reading references like Shapiro’s to “Getting Closer.” Neat continuing education!

  • Debora says:

    Glad you wrote this, Richard. Funny, was recently asked to speak about something I had written–tell more about the events and (gulp) myself. I was mortified, but began. I hadn’t uttered 10 words before I shut myself down–it all sounded so stupid in my ears. What I wanted to say was all on the page. The literary intent had been achieved. It seemed totally weird to talk about it all out of context of the work. I agree with Shapiro. Thanks for bringing her to us. I had not known her work.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Debora. I recently wrote about an incident from my childhood and transferred my memory entirely to the page! If I got asked about it, I’d have almost nothing to say. Also, I can relate to you sounding stupid in your own ears: we write for others, but it’s so private, and then you face a roomful of people and are supposed to TALK, like a regular person. But what you made wasn’t a regular person thing but a writer thing. Complicated.

  • owen1936 says:

    Richard, the Emerson quote below is also highlighted by Shapiro. For me, this is the decisive one.

    “The good writer,” Ralph Waldo Emerson noted in his journal, “seems to be writing about himself, but has his eye always on that thread of the universe which runs through himself and all things.”

    Transparency in a writer is useful, to me, only if the author manages to become transparent in such a way that opens a window into larger life. For me, reporting hurts or victories alone, however real they may be, does not constitute art, if they are not in some important way transcended.


    • Richard says:

      I totally agree, Dave. That’s why reflection is so important. Someone went through something, but he’s telling about it to a group who wants to know not just what happened and how you felt then, but what you learned and what you know now. Nobody wants to read something that’s just someone’s snit, for sure.

      • owen1936 says:

        Richard, your blog sent me back to Shapiro–at least to my highlighted passages and often more. These words of hers, near the end, answered my question:

        But I can tell you that the writing of a book, no matter how deeply, profoundly personal—if it is literature, if you have attended to the formidable task of illuminating the human heart in conflict with itself—will do the opposite of expose you. It will connect you. With others. With the world around you. With yourself.

  • This is such a great post, thank you.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Loved this. Would enjoy taking a class with Dani Shapiro, I think.

    This post hit me with the connection between Romanticism and memoir. And, of course, the Romantics were the first intellectuals in America to develop an interest in Eastern religions also. So the list of tags at the end of your post are all related.

    I’m sure you have your own thoughts about this connection, starting with Wordsworth’s “The Prelude”?

    • Richard says:

      Just an instinctive sense that they go together, Shirley. I also see a link with Transcendentalism, nodding to Emerson and especially Thoreau—what was Walden if not a memoir?—and of course Thoreau and Emerson were influenced by the Romantics.

Leave a Reply