But there is a profound difference between what a writer does alone in her room — the honing, crafting, shaping, transcending of her own personal history in order to carve out a story that is ultimately a public performance — and the human need to quietly share in the most intimate possible way, to confess, to stutter out thoughts and feelings, to be heard and understood. Annie Dillard once admonished writers: “You may not let rip.” I keep her words close to me when I write from my own life. I think perhaps it should be emblazoned on T-shirts and given to first-year M.F.A. students. There is no art in letting it rip. 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. I am arranging the pieces that come my way, as Virginia Woolf suggests in her diary. I am attempting to make a piece of music as clear, as emotionally resonant and orderly, as a sonata. I am striving to make order out of chaos, which is the sweetest pleasure I know. When I succeed, I have a thing, this story, to offer. It isn’t me. It isn’t even a facsimile. I have used my life — rather than my life using me — to make something more beautiful and refined than I could ever be.
So the next time you see me, do me a favor. Let me tell you about my Aunt Shirley. Let me tell you about the day my mother died. Don’t turn away because you think you know. Allow me to share with you in a stumbling, inarticulate way, what it is to be me.
This absolutely mirrors my own internal conflict about writing about myself here in this blog, or really just sharing on the internet in general. I have so much stuff stuck on my drafts that will probably stay there forever, because I keep wanting to express, but by walking along the edges of autobiography, I fear being thought to be known. That people will forget that everything I ever put out is obviously edited to death. I know people’s presumptions are not something I can ever control, but still. It’s annoying. If you read what I write, my greatest hope is that you understand me. But this does not mean you know me. I do not write to be known.