Who am I to Write About My Life?
Tho' I think it would make a great memoir or personal essay!
Writers are magicians. We open a new document on our laptop or turn to a fresh page in our journal and write something that no one in the history of the world has ever written. And that no one in the future will ever write. Isn’t that amazing?
This is especially true when it comes to writing about one’s life. No one else has lived your life, and that 100% guarantees your story is uniquely yours.
One semester, in my personal essay workshop class, the first student to distribute her draft had written about her relationship with her less-than-stellar father. Well, apparently there are a lot of less-than-stellar fathers because around 10 more students chose to write about theirs. And you know what? Each essay had a fresh take on a father-child relationship.
Every writer has their own voice. They have funny or insightful or even deranged thoughts that are distinctly theirs. They observe details most people wouldn’t notice or remember conversations others might have long forgotten. And this is just the start of what makes someone’s stories about their life worth writing—and reading.
A good writer can make an ordinary experience—let’s say starting a new job—interesting. A great writer can elevate an ordinary experience into the extraordinary by making it fascinating or hilarious or thought provoking or poignant. By turning real-life people into indelible “characters.” By shaping a story around an incident that gives rise to a meaningful realization. All of this and more from something as seemingly mundane as starting a new job.
This doesn’t mean that every writer should write about their life. It means that if you’ve had some interesting experiences, have an original perspective on them, and can perhaps offer your readers some hard-earned wisdom, you might have the makings of a writer who can get readers to care about your life. You don’t necessarily have to have lived a larger-than-life kind of existence.
But because so many writers now choose to write personally, a certain skepticism about memoir writing has seeped into the literary culture and made some writers think twice. I believe the prejudice against young writers can be especially challenging.
When I first started teaching, I remember a friend asking me (pretty derisively, I thought), “What does a 20 year old have to write about?” He seemed to believe a young person wouldn’t have experiences worth relaying or that they’d lack the maturity to write about “deeper” issues.
His attitude echoes what the humorist Fran Lebowitz, a lovable contrarian, espouses in Martin Scorsese’s documentary series, Pretend It’s a City. She tells a college audience that everyone thinks their life is interesting enough to write about—it’s not.
And one of my favorite short story writers, Lorrie Moore, said ,“That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition.”
It’s true that young people, generally, might lack the perspective that comes with years. And some young people, including my students—although very few, actually—haven’t had any major conflicts or traumas to write about. Their parents are their best friends, they get along with their siblings, they haven’t been bullied in school or on social media, they never went to rehab. My God, they even passed their driving test on the first try! Boring, right?
It doesn’t have to be.
Several years ago, I had a student, Katie, who has since gone on to great success as a YA novelist. But when she distributed one of her personal essay drafts to the workshop class, my heart sank as I glanced at the title: it was something about knitting. Knitting? Really? I blamed myself for her choice of such a “dull” topic because one of the prompts I used was to write about an obsession or even a hobby others might not know much about. This has led to essays on playing quidditch or the love of horror films or working as an escort to offset student loans (I didn’t see that one coming)—all naturally engaging topics. I kept putting off reading Katie’s draft because, in my limited imagination, I couldn’t see how she’d make knitting compelling. I should have known better.
Knitting was what the essay was ostensibly about. But what it was really about was the people in Katie’s life. She used the hats and scarves and sweaters she’d knitted for them as a motif for exploring her relationships. Brilliant! And, you know what? The details she included about the craft of knitting were surprisingly interesting, too.
Katie’s essay wasn’t “heavy”—and it wasn’t intended to be. But many of my students who are drawn to writing about their lives—and maybe this is true for you—have gone through some painful—even harrowing—stuff, and they have the need and the courage (and it does require courage) to get it down on the page and share it with readers.
One student, who suffered terribly from insomnia—I can still picture her forcing her eyes wide open—had been repeatedly sexually assaulted by her brother for years until she finally escaped the situation. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents what had happened on their watch. But she could tell our class through her essays.
Another student described his nearly decade-long process of transitioning from a woman to a man: the impossible-to-ignore realization of his true identity, the difficulty of the hormone treatments and surgeries, the search for self-acceptance and acceptance by others.
Another wrote about the tragic (even that seems too weak a word) day in his life when his father shot and killed his mother, and then his brother picked up the gun and killed his father. In a matter of moments, and right in front of him, his family had been decimated. The class this student was in was multi-genre, and I kept telling myself, this must be fiction, please, tell me he was confused about the assignment and this is all made up. But, no, it was reality.
Unfortunately, there’s no lack of pain and shame and loss and suffering to go around.
Fortunately, there’s writing.
Have you ever wanted to write about your life but were worried that it’s not “fascinating enough” for readers to care about? How did you resolve this dilemma, or are you still grappling with it? Please share your experiences in the comments below, and feel free to reply to each others’ responses. Thanks, as always, for being so open with this wonderful writing community!