Reading Others, Reading Ourselves
We read memoirs so we can view both self and others with a more tender and convicting eye.
“There’s something fascinating about a single voice telling you its life.”
—Mary Karr, The Paris Review, November 2012
In Hannah Notess’s nonfiction collection, Jesus Girls, a variety of female writers tell the quirky, difficult parts of their conversion stories, the kinds of things that couldn’t get shared around Youth for Christ campfires. Some recount surreal baptisms in kiddie pools; others describe, in haunting detail, the doubts that kept them from feeling at home in the churches that so enthusiastically proclaimed the gospel as rational, undeniable truth.
The collection is an underground hit, for clear reason—its readers not only identify with the writers’ stories, but are compelled to share their own. At the 2010 Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, I saw lines of women and men lined up to get their copies of Jesus Girls signed, and overheard comments like, “This is exactly what I experienced; I should go write about it.”
And therein lies one of the problems with memoir—because of its confessional bent and its autobiographical purpose, every reader walks away from a good piece of nonfiction thinking that they, too, should go and tell their story on the printed page, convinced that, if all it takes is that single voice, that the genre is open to all.
When it comes to personal narratives, I’m a populist. I believe that this saying is true: by the time you are ten, you’ve encountered enough of the world to write a whole book. And as someone whose faith is directly confessional, there is no way that I can say that someone’s story is not important enough to share—it might not have the literary quality I look for, but who am I to tell someone that their experience lacks power and integrity?
But the field of memoir is strewn with stories that use dramatic plots to persuade readers toward one purpose: purchase, sale, five stars on Amazon. Memoirs are a dime a dozen because there are a million writers who believe that the purpose of sharing personal narrative is to just “get their story out,” that the genre can be just as sensational as The Bachelorette. And critics and writers alike have lambasted the popularity of memoir precisely for this reason; it is too grassroots, too unliterary, the scope of personal experience so gutted by self-help hucksters and single-issue evangelists that the precise, exacting power of memoir is reduced and ignored.
And what is that power of memoir? What is it about a refined personal narrative that has the ability to not only stun us with beauty and awe, but to persuade us to believe that what we read is actual truth? And why does it matter so much to us to read accounts that are true, even as we surround ourselves with the flat narratives of reality television and the constructs of social media? What is it that we hunger for as we update our timelines, the tiny nets that we throw out to each other, hoping for something beyond “Only Connect”?
We mostly read personal stories because we assume they are easy, that it is simpler to step into a real world than into the careful architecture of a short story or the tight, complex edges of a poem’s image. But personal narrative is not easy; it makes a demand on our hearts and lives in a way that we are often too lazy, or afraid, to recognize. And to understand the power of personal narrative, we must go to the roots of rhetoric itself, where literature’s persuasive power had a corrective intention. These roots can help us recognize what it is that make personal narratives appeal to us in the first place, what it is that makes us continue to seek them.
The history of rhetoric is complex and fascinating; the categories of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery are still in play today, shaping the way that writers and readers engage texts. As a teacher of writing, I often find that my students are more concerned with arrangement—with the order of paragraphs, with the location of a thesis—than they are with invention, that canon of rhetoric dealing with the creation of ideas, of stances and positions and questions. Invention shapes the rest of the writer’s work because it helps the writer name and place the direction of the subject they are exploring. We see evidence of its importance in Aristotle and in contemporary writers: Aristotle named a list of devices (compare and contrast, testimonial, cause and effect) that writers could use to guide their ideas, and any writer worth his salt will send you straight back to imitation, one of rhetoric’s most powerful devices. “Imitation is part of the creative process,” says William Zinsser, scholar and practitioner of memoir. “Find the best writers. . . . Soon enough you will become who you are supposed to become.”
Read others’ work aloud; study their forms, their approaches, and try your hand at them. These are the techniques that memoirists have been using for many years. In one of my own essays, I imitated the beginning of Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ because its haunting opening lines—“My mother and father were born in the most beautiful place on earth”— captured something I wanted to say about my own hometown south of Chicago, and it was only by writing my own version of those lines that I was able to create a sense of how it felt to grow up where I did.
But is there something else in rhetoric for memoirists to imitate? Is there something that rhetoric’s technique can impress upon our personal narratives that can correct the slant desires that we bring to hearing personal stories?
Quintillian, a first century rhetorician, is famous for imitating Cicero’s style of rhetoric— cool, composed, and orderly—during a heavily Senecan period in Roman rhetorical history, where political speeches had the same chaotic feel as an episode of The Voice. Quintillian reapproached rhetoric with a sense of its original purpose: to please and to instruct, to offer something beautiful that also had a transformative effect on the reader. “Rhetoric,” Quintillian is quoted as saying, “is a good man speaking well.” The act of constructing words—and of delivering them—was intended to shape others in moral ways. Speeches were given to influence people of power to make the right decisions for the commonwealth, and young boys created imitations of Odysseus’s speeches to reenact, and sometimes reinterpret, the virtues presented in the poems and orations that they read. Written and oral literature was seen as something that repaired broken morals, that healed intellectual wounds, and that lifted readers out of emotions that had gone haywire into an understanding of self and world that demonstrated balance, order, and even mercy.
And when Augustine wrote The Confessions, he took all the tools of rhetoric and used them to interpret his own actions in the world, and to speak both beautifully and well of the movement of God in his life. In his own narrative— considered the Western world’s first autobiography—Augustine used the intentions of rhetoric to bring readers into the work of understanding his story, and the story of God’s salvation, so that they would also tell their stories truthfully, to know that they were held by God in all things, and that all their life was a slow return to God himself. Augustine’s critique of those who spoke—and, we can add, wrote—without purpose is clear: “Woe betide those who fail to speak,” he writes in The Confession’s first book, “while the chatterboxes go on saying nothing.”
This is where rhetoric’s devices can also add to the way that memoir, and literature, is ultimately persuasive. The use of images, the devices of style, and the role of memory is used differently in memoir than, say, in a presidential speech. And it is also true that what persuades a reader to trust a personal narrative is something that can be more intuitive than logical. I trust Maxine Hong Kingston’s ghostly representations of her drowned aunt in “No Name Woman” because Kingston’s rendering of her aunt’s life and death is both haunting and powerful, and because she presents herself as a narrator who is just as perplexed by her aunt’s suicide as I am. “My aunt haunts me,” Kingston writes, “her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her. . . . I do not think she means me well.”
What compels in personal narrative is the sense that the narrator is someone that the reader doesn’t merely identify with, but someone that the readers deeply trusts, someone whose emotional life is not vapid or bullying or overly pure. Augustine made his passions and regrets known; Kingston’s doubts bring the reader into her own worry and fear; the writers in Jesus Girls use humour and dialogue to bring readers into the quirky, painful worlds of their religious experiences. The narrator does not have to be virtuous in order to inspire virtue, or even a sense of self-examination; the narrator simply has to be honest, both about themselves and about their connection to the story that they are trying to tell. If, as Mary Karr describes it, the reader can smell the narrator being “an asshole,” the whole thing will fail, no pleasure or instruction to be had.
Mary Karr’s own memoirs—The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and most recently, Lit—are widely celebrated for their ability to not only construct beautiful lines out of Karr’s difficult life story, but are also blamed by critics for the ongoing rush of confessional memoirs that closet personal narrative into strictly individual, therapeutic terms. But Karr’s purpose in writing was not to sort through her life events; Karr claims that she and her family had already done the hard emotional work of therapy and reconciliation long before any of her books were written. Instead, Karr wrote because something else compelled her—a sense that the story needed to be told, not simply for her own needs, but for others to read. And it seems that Karr’s impressions of her readers, and her purposes in writing, are high. In a 2009 interview with The Paris Review, she said, “Memoirists can make the mistake of treating readers [like] enemies and trying to dupe them. I feel like the reader has given up twenty-plus dollars, and I owe her a vivid experience without lying.”
For Karr, the writer owes something to the reader—something that is vivid but truthful, words that compel the reader to see the writer’s life as something worth reading about, something that offers more than distraction or cheap tricks. And the cheapest trick, according to Karr, is to persuade the reader that you are something you are not; that you are suave, enlightened, coasting through your narrative with ultimate control: “If you see the memoir as constructing a false self to sell to some chump audience, then you’ll never know the truth, because the truth is derived from what actually happened.”
And what actually happened for Karr was this: in a childhood filled with abuses and neglect, she survived to see how deep her wounds really were, how her choices as an adult were not only of her own volition, but were also flanked with a grace that was as raw and real as her father’s Texan idioms, a love that burned through her addictions and her losses to help her see things anew. It is this story that has compelled millions of readers to see her books as more than therapy, but true persuasion—her story has convinced many broken people that their lives are not lost; that, in the pits of hurt, the ache for beauty and wholeness comes from both within us and outside us, pulling us up to see the hope of our lives made right; that, if one story about healing can be true, our own stories that include a longing for healing can also be true, in their time.
What makes Karr a successful memoirist is that she knows that beauty and restoration go hand in hand, and that our desire for both is part of what makes us human. We read personal narratives because we continue to look for reminders, and without the reminders that personal narratives give us, we fall prey to the kinds of self-imposing narratives that fall far short of rhetoric’s intention to make both our words, and ourselves, good. We are persuaded by personal narrative to act differently, to view both self and other with a more tender and convicting eye. And in so doing, our own stories, and our whole selves, are refined.
If a single voice can compel us to listen, what is the result of that listening? What is it about a narrative’s power that pushes us to trust and change and believe? The details of our lives, even in extraordinary moments of despair or audacity, are ordinary—there is no life that has nothing in common with someone else’s life. And some might say that one person’s narrative is solely limited by their individual experience—that it is too difficult for singular stories to remain intact if they are too obviously connected with the stories of others. But when the voice of a memoir, as Patricia Hampl claims, “seeks the relation of self to time”—in other words, when a narrator defines himself, not in terms of his own self-importance, but in connection to the wider world—memoir becomes “trustworthy . . . (folding) itself into the vast, fluid essay that is history.”
In a time when we question history, the recording of facts, and the accuracy of memory, this might be hard to believe. But because we still find ourselves listening—because single voices, both the voices of others and our own, still draw us—there is evidence for the good of personal narratives after all. And whether we write our own, or simply keep collecting the stories of others, may we know the purpose of these narratives, and may we tend them carefully, both for ourselves and for anyone else who happens to listen.