Recently a new version of the champagne meme was doing the rounds on Twitter, and this time the targets were memoirists:
‘I’m afraid it’s only autofiction if it comes from the autofiction region of France. Otherwise it’s just sparkling narcissism.’
As the author of two memoirs, I chortled and happily re-tweeted it. It’s not just witty, it’s also a useful reminder of what to avoid when writing about your life for imagined readers. Narcissism—or the perception of it—is one of the potholes you may encounter when shaping a confessional narrative from your lived experience.
Having thought long and hard about the dangers of an unchecked sense of self-importance in chronicling a life, I’ve made some lists of things to aim for and things to avoid when navigating this complex emotional territory.
Things to avoid:
- Writing as skiting—do not brag. By all means—describe what you have done, and if what you have done is brave or brilliant or beautiful, your readers will come to that conclusion themselves. Do not expect or even desire their admiration.
- Writing as fighting—do not write with belligerence. By all means—state your case, tell the truth as you see it, even allow your anger to emerge on the page, but don’t use writing as a tool for revenge or a weapon to harm others.
- Writing as knighting—do not overly-praise the people you’ve met and admired in your life, even if they are marvellous. Hagiographic writing can lead the reader to doubt your honesty or authenticity. No-one is perfect. Even admitting the possibility of imperfection in an apparently perfect person can help.
- Writing as frightening—do not seek to frighten your reader into agreeing with or caring about you. Even if you are writing about terrible things that have happened to you, try to find a way to convey to your reader that, at some level, or at some time in the future, you are going to be okay.
- Writing as ‘whitening’— two meanings here: 1) do not assume your world view or sense of identity or cultural understandings or values are shared by others, 2) do not try to whitewash something that is more complex or ugly than you wish it was.
Things to aim for:
- Writing as lightning—aim to create vivid flashes of understanding in your readers’ minds—intellectual, emotional and/or aesthetic. Epiphanies are like Sherbet Bombs for the reader’s brain—bloody delicious.
- Writing as tightening—aim to never waste a word. Avoid using too many superlatives and adverbs. Take out anything that is not necessary. Not every anecdote will belong in the story you’re currently writing. You can always save them up (‘park your darlings’) for another project.
- Writing as heightening—aim to leave your reader with a heightened awareness of whatever you are trying to communicate to them, an awareness that will last a lifetime.
- Writing as lightening—aim to leave your reader feeling less weighed down by the universal burden of unique subjectivity. In other words, show them they are not alone in the world.
- Writing as brightening—aim to contribute something illuminating to the cultural conversation with your writing. Not everyone can sell a lot of books; aim instead to tell stories that might make the world a better place. Yep. Pollyanna-ish and proud.