The difficulties of writing personal stories in a connected age

26 Aug

I haven’t read any of Dani Shapiro’s books, but last week I came across her New Yorker piece “A Memoir is Not a Status Update”. It’s a dense essay and it got me thinking about online sharing, how we tell the story of our lives, and the expectations of connected readers.

I wonder what would have become of me if I had come of age as a writer during these years of living out loud. My parents were in a car crash in 1986 that killed my father and badly injured my mother. If social media had been available to me at the time, would I have posted the news on Facebook? Tweeted it to my followers as I stood on line to board the flight home? Instead of sitting numbly on the plane, with the help of several little bottles of vodka, would I have purchased a few hours of air time with Boingo Wi-Fi and monitored the response—the outpouring of kindness, a deluge of “likes,” mostly from strangers? And ten years later, would I have been compelled to write a memoir about that time in my life? Or would I have felt that I’d already told the story by posting it as my status update?

Many people do share painful personal things like that on Facebook and perhaps that is the primary way they narrate their lives. I don’t, but not because I’m terribly private. A few quick replies to my status update won’t make me feel more supported than I already do by the people closest to me. Also, I’m both introspective and a storyteller, and the couple visible lines of a Facebook update are not how I want others to read my story. Perhaps this is part of what Shapiro is getting at when she insists that writing her memoirs is not as simple as “telling her story”:

I’ve waited—sometimes patiently, sometimes in despair—for the story under pressure of concealment to reveal itself to me. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings—that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it—are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.

While I agree with her on this, I find that incoherence fascinating as well. It’s one of the reasons I’ve liked reading personal blogs for the past decade and a half. As long as we read them without the expectation of polished tales that are psychologically insightful and narratively complete, it is hard to find the raw emotion and immediacy of human experience written anywhere else. I think there is great value in both. I might appreciate the final memoir more as a reader, but as a student of human nature, I love blogs. Facebook feels different to me; it is less introspective and more about presentation. A blog post can say, “I am experiencing this and just want to throw it out there as evidence of what life is, tragic or joyful, confusing or simple, lusty or numb.”  On the other hand, many Facebook updates seem, to me, to say, “I’m am experiencing some version of this and I need your validation, reassurance, or congratulations to feel whole.”  There are blogs that do that too, or put a filter on all real emotion, but those aren’t the ones I’ve most appreciated.

Shapiro also published an open letter on Salon earlier this year, “Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook“.  Now that we have a mind-blowing database at our fingertips, it’s easy to fact check everything, even things like memoirs that were never intended for that scrutiny. “When a writer sits down to write memoir, she is not sharing her diary,” says Shapiro. Events and people are left out, rearranged, and changed through the memory and the craft of the author. Someone wanting to make a memoir (or an autobiography or historic fiction, I’d add) match up with a factual timeline is missing the point.

We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records. I’m sure it will make for scintillating reading.

In my offline, non-academic writing, I am struggling with drawing a line between fact and fiction. I want to write truthfully but not completely factually. I’ll be thinking about Shapiro’s letter for a long time.

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Posted by on August 26, 2014 in Side Topics


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