This article was provided by Writing Your Life team member Amanda Benson.
Earlier this week I received a newsletter from Patricia’s friend Lezlie Laws with LifeArt Studio. Reading it got me thinking again about some of the lessons from Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which we studied in Patricia’s recent six-week writing class.
“In memoir, you’re the mommy, and the reader’s the baby,” states Karr. What she means is writers have a great deal of work to do in feeding their readers the story in small, tasteful bites, all along nursing a deepening connection between readers and themselves.
Why is this important? Can’t we just tell our stories without worrying too much about our readers? Sure, we can do whatever we want with our stories. Yet, this is the point where knowing our “why” comes into play. Understanding why we to tell our story vastly informs how we tell it.
For instance, if I am sharing about a season of my life where I walked through a difficult, nearly impossible struggle and lived to tell about it, I might wonder if there is someone else out there who needs to hear the hope that one can make it through. Therefore, telling my story for the purpose of sharing hope necessarily involves a connection with my reader. They have to develop trust in me and the truth of what I share.
Karr says it is a reader’s “emotional connection to the memoir’s narrator that hooks [her] in…The best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies.” In other words, our vulnerability as writers is what makes a real connection to our readers. And that connection is not for ourselves. It sheds light on the interior life of our readers, maybe even for the first time, prompting “some reflection about the reader’s own divided selves and ever-morphing past,” says Karr. In their connection with the vulnerability we put onto the page, they find they are not alone. There is a “deep, mysterious sense of identification with a memoirist who’s confessed her past,” writes Karr. “I believed they were talking only to me.”
To get to this point of writing authentically is another thing altogether. It is never easy to mine the depths of what we have lived through, not to mention bridge the gaps between our delusions about the past and what actually happened. That’s why Karr likens writing memoir to “knocking yourself out with your own fist. No matter how self-aware you are, memoir wrenches at your insides precisely because it makes you battle with your very self – your neat analyses and tidy excuses. The form always has profound psychological consequences on its author. It can’t not.”
Connecting with our readers in a meaningful way naturally requires we write our “true” self onto the page. It can be hugely tempting to share one detail, or omit another, in order to spin ourselves in a certain light before the eyes of our readers. Yet it is these “false selves” that we concoct for the page that keep us from speaking the truth that longs to be told. Our ego, like a “tarantula – starving to be shored up by praise – tries to scare [us] away from saying simply whatever small, true thing is standing in line for [us] to say,” says Karr.
Thus, we come to the wisdom of “know thyself.” This is where seeing Lezlie’s post this week sparked all of the above. Consider this amazing poem by Karen Maezen Miller.
I Knew You Before
I knew you before you were a victim,
before you were a wreck, a mess, and a bomb.
Without a crowning success or crippling failure.
Before you had an issue, an axe, or a cross.
No disorder, no syndrome, no label—
without a blemish or scar.
Before that night and the morning after,
before the after and before the before.
Before the fall, the crash, the crime,
without an upgrade or makeover.
no narration, no closed captioning,
no footnotes and no bonus features,
before you remembered to forget and forgot to remember.
I knew you before you were what you say—
what you think, what you fear, what you know.
Do you know yourself before?
“Kind of a funny phrase isn’t it? What does it mean to know yourself before?” prompts Lezlie. “Well, maybe it means before you were famous, or before you were successful, or before you were depressed, or before you were old, or before you were some version of a person that the world wanted/expected/demanded that you become. Before all of that, you were something. You were an essence. You were whole and complete. You were filled with potential. You were your essential self.”
Do you know yourself before? Before you started writing memoir?
Only you have The Story, the one only you can tell. Only you have the “voice exactly suited to telling the tale in the truest, most beautiful way,” Karr encourages us.
What “small, true thing” are you longing to put into words? Be brave. You can do it. Remember who you are.