Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Memoir writing and "oversharing": How authors find that fine line between candor and too much information

During Sunday’s three-mile run, I listened to a podcast of Fresh Air on which Terry Gross interviewed the writer Ayelet Waldman. Since the occasion was the paperback release of Waldman’s parenting memoir, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace, and since Ayelet Waldman is known among other things for her sometimes startling candor about her personal life and her relationships with her husband and children, the conversation turned quickly to the intimacy of the memoir form. Waldman said in the interview that she herself is mildly bipolar, and although she qualified that she did not mean to imply that all memoirists are bipolar, you sort of have to be, as she sees it, to overshare the way memoirists do. As she explained it, both people with bipolar disorder and memoir writers are missing a sense of the usual boundaries between public and private, and that’s what enables them to write about matters most people would consider too personal.

Since I suspect I’m about as far from bipolar as anyone can be – that is, firmly entrenched at the midpoint of mood possibilities, almost all the time – I don’t agree there’s necessarily a mandatory correlation between bipolarity and personal writing, but I’m interested nonetheless in her take on oversharing and how it factors into the memoir form. Last month I gave my memoir manuscript to a few friends and acquaintances to read, feeling the need to get more feedback than I’d gathered so far with the project, and although they generally haven’t gotten back to me with any comments yet – I suggested they take a couple of months to wade through it – I started to think about oversharing as soon as I’d handed it out. Was I guilty? Would they call me on it? Or is the memoir form woven in tightly enough to our contemporary literary fabric that readers simply take it for granted that if you’re going to write a memoir, it’s going to include more intimate details than the average person who is not writing a memoir would opt to divulge?

I’ve been writing personal essays about my friends, family and colleagues since I was in college. To me, the personal essay format is second nature – and to some extent my bread and butter – and I seldom think about the intimacy it implies. My eleven-year-old son knows I write essays in the newspaper about family life, and sometimes he chooses to read them and sometimes not, but he has never complained about content. My daughter Holly, who is seven and has appeared in several published pieces recently, has been telling anyone who asks that she is pointedly not interested in reading my essays about her. If the time comes that my children ask me to stop writing about them, I’ll comply with the request, but to me this is just part of my work as well as my art. Writing about my family is no different from an artist painting the view outside her studio window.

Still, Waldman’s comment made me think about whether my instincts are sound in what I share. Last month after I dropped off my manuscript with one of my reader-friends, her eleven-year-old son picked it up and started reading it. “He said he thinks some of the things you wrote would be better in a private journal than in a book,” my friend said. Well, I can understand why an eleven-year-old would see it that way. My memoir is not going to make sense to someone, whether adult or child, with no experience in the genre. As Waldman pointed out, the memoir form presumes authorial intimacy; a reader who doesn’t normally peruse memoirs is naturally going to wonder why the author is sharing so much, but I think it’s fair to say the precedent is well established at this point.

Waldman has become a highly respected writer with her own form of intimacy. I’ve been lucky that with a few exceptions, most notably the one involving my entire ex-book club, no one has accused me of writing too intimately about myself or about them. That could change, which is one reason I’m trying to get more friends and acquaintances to read through my manuscript and let me know what they think. But Waldman has found success with treading the fine line between candor and oversharing, and I’m hoping I can too.

Although the rules may change if Holly ever decides she wants to start reading my work after all.

1 comment:

  1. I just discovered your blog through a Google alert for "writing personal essays." As one who is interested in creative nonfiction in general and in personal-essay writing in particular, I enjoyed reading yours. I must say that you have excellent writing skills. I'll be back to read more.