The best writing in any genre is an act of love, not explanation or even insight, not contrition or justice—and surely not reprisal.
Such an act doesn’t require thematic justification or any other reason for being, so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to pitch it. Love doesn’t need a tag line or an elevator speech: it just needs to be real. That’s not to say it’s easy—loving this beautiful, brutal world or anyone in it so much that you have to draw their precious outline on a page can be consuming, even desperate, and if unrequited for one reason or another (the need for a day job, the interference of people who need us, the barriers of anxiety and doubt), we pine and wither.
And then, often, we get subverted into thinking that we need to write about ourselves. After all—isn’t that what memoir is supposed to be about? Isn’t memoir by its very nature all about us? Our memories, our lives, our trials and woes and joys and transformations?
I don’t think so.
That capital I, so unavoidable in memoir, stands up tall only in witness, not to dominate the text or claim singular importance, but rather to testify: to honor what the writer has seen, to obey love’s imperative to cherish and also set free the people we have cared about–including those who did not, or could not, reciprocate.
Memoir is sometimes an elegy of love that allows us at last to touch those who eluded our reach in life, to hold them steady in the light while they rage, to return compassion for ignorance and fear, to warm them inside our coats until they thaw, revealing hearts that beat like our own. And sometimes, of course, memoir is the best chance we have at paying tribute to those who held us under their coats next to their generous hearts, and to keep gratitude alive in this unforgiving world.
So if you struggle with the “I” in memoir, if you think that you’re supposed to be writing about yourself and thus need to make your story sound, somehow, important enough to warrant a book—relax.
Memoir isn’t really about you at all.