Why We Write Memoir: A Reading List

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No matter how many years pass, no matter how much I work in therapy, no matter how far I remove myself geographically from the site of trauma, whenever I open the YouTube video on a channel I cannot forget the name of, I start to drown. It is not a quick plunge underwater. When first the browser loads, I tell myself, as is my natural response to any inkling of pain, that I am fine.

The first sound is my laughter — a strained version. In the video, I hold my hands to my belly, as if emulating a kind of joy, before gripping the door frame to my college dormitory. My laugh reaches almost a shriek in pitch. Behind the camera, one of my former Division I college teammates cajoles, “Talk to us, talk to us, Jackie.”

I pause the video. I remind myself that I am here, in a new-to-me town in Pennsylvania, years and miles from this day, but my body tightens like a fist. I want to leave my apartment, to run beneath a sky tinged the soothing, sugar-spun pink of cotton candy. I want to weep. But instead, though I feel some kind of water rising around me, I press play again. I have to, I tell myself. I’m writing.

The thing about the video is that I do not remember it being recorded. In it, though I appear “normal” with my black Nike shorts, purple-framed glasses, dirty blond hair sleek to my shoulders, I am experiencing one of many mysterious neurological episodes that would plague me that semester. With the episodes came what doctors would later term aphasia and a transient alteration of awareness. In layman’s terms, this meant I would repeat a few words (“Sky News, Sky News, Sky News,” “Aurora, Aurora, Aurora”) for minutes at a time. I wouldn’t remember the episodes when I later woke up. A few of my teammates, gathered behind the lens of the camera, knew this. I don’t know what prompted them to film that day, if it was a gesture of care that turned cruel, or just a means of entertaining themselves from the beginning.

When I do speak in the footage, I first say, “I, um.” I glance down at the floor. Hoping to confuse me, the boys filming ask where I’m going tomorrow and where I’m going yesterday. I respond, “I, I, I” and look at my watch. As they continue to prod with their questions, my voice reaches a higher pitch. I shriek “No! Noo! I-no! I-no! I, I.” This is the part where I feel the water rising around me at my desk, where I know I’ll spend the rest of the day in what feels like a bottomless ocean, suspended by a grief I cannot name or easily swim out of.

I have been writing about this video for six years, as part of a memoir that I am still wrestling into being. After watching this video, when I am in the watery deep, I ask myself questions: How can I write ethically about my teammates, who both cared for me and inflicted deep pain in turns? What happens if they read this someday? Why, in a world where there is far more horrific news being reported daily, am I trying to add my voice? Why, if I don’t consciously remember this moment, can’t I let the video rot in oblivion where it belongs?

I have reported this footage to YouTube dozens of times. Each time, I select the option “Hateful or abusive content” and pick “Abusing vulnerable individuals.” I shrink away from the word “abusive,” telling myself it’s really not that bad, but then I remember that within the video, one of the girls observing — someone I considered a friend at the time — says, “You guys are so mean” and a boy from the team says, “she’s gonna cry” before they continue. Even while coherent, while completely within themselves, my teammates knew that their actions were harmful. And for me, though I don’t consciously remember this video being taken, my body holds a history of its own. The trauma lives in the way I isolated myself for years because I feared other people more than I feared my symptoms. The trauma lives in the way I used to scream when a tender former partner tried to care for me during episodes. The trauma lives in the fact that the video is a testimony I cannot ignore, a memory I cannot blur out of being like so many other incidents that happened that semester between the soft of my body and those teammates.

At times, these six years of writing have felt like living within a dense fog: I cannot see where I’m going or where I’ve been. The drafts seem to become both more refined and completely opaque as I press forward. But recently, my life has shifted in fundamental ways: I broke up with a partner who knew the contours of my history as well as he could and moved halfway across the country. Here, in this new place, alone, I have been working on a proposal version of the book. In some ways, the tectonic shifts in my personal life and geography have allowed me to see the story in a whole new way, as if I’m finally far enough away to make meaning. During this process, I have been practicing tenderness toward myself. I do leave my desk to chase cotton candy clouds each morning, all the while reminding myself to breathe. I email terrible drafts of my overview to writer friends who nurture me while I probe old wounds. And I have spent innumerable afternoon hours with the essays below, each writer’s words a lifeline pulling me from the deep.

1. Against Catharsis: Writing is Not Therapy (T Kira Madden, March 22, 2019, Lit Hub)

I may have believed that to write The Thing down is to take one more step away from The Thing itself, one more step removed, one more page and another and another until there is a thick stack of proof, of growth, of Tada!—the restorative salvation.

After writing Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, T Kira Madden reckons with the idea that writing memoir is inherently cathartic. By closely examining her reaction to seeing a boy pounding his fists against the closed windows of his mother’s car, Madden considers the differences between life itself and life reexamined, and discusses the importance of allowing readers to enter a work.

2. But What Will Your Parents Think? (Morgan Jerkins, May 2018, Longreads)

This past February, during the book tour for my essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female and Feminist in (White) America, one of the recurring questions I received most frequently from readers was about how I pushed past the fear to write about the most intimate aspects of my life?

Rather than providing her audience with a list of coping mechanisms, Morgan Jerkins told the truth: she never overcame fear, particularly the fear of sharing her work with her parents, but learned to acknowledge — and write within — its presence instead.

3. Amy Tan on Writing and the Secrets of Her Past (Nicole Chung, October 16, 2017, Shondaland)

Amy Tan discusses unexpected sites of discovery, reconciling her memory of loved ones with alternative realities, cultivating empathy while writing, and the importance of community in this riveting interview about her new memoir Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination with Nicole Chung.

Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. The book is not about happy situations — it’s about trauma, and the times when characters have to question who they are. It’s about my questions, and who I am.

4. Annie Dillard and the Writing Life (Alexander Chee, October 16, 2009, The Morning News)

Wanting to be a visual artist, Alexander Chee originally didn’t conceive of himself as a writer. One day, however, before a friend borrowed his typewriter, he wrote a story that “came out as I now know very few stories do: quickly and with confidence.”

Lorrie Moore calls the feeling I felt that day ‘the consolations of the mask,’ where you make a place that doesn’t exist in your own life for the life your life has no room for, the exiles of your memory. But I didn’t know this then.

Chee, who most recently published How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, reflects on the significant impact Annie Dillard had on his beginnings as a writer.

5. A Reckoning is Different than a Tell-All: An Interview with Kiese Laymon (Kiese Laymon, interviewed by Abigail Bereola, October 18, 2018, The Paris Review)

What’s the difference between a tell-all and a reckoning? How does audience change how a book is both written and read? What effect can memoir have on the level of personal relationships as well as within the realm of larger cultural conversation? Kiese Laymon addresses these questions and more in a brilliant interview by Abigail Bereola, as they discuss his groundbreaking memoir, Heavy.

I think people conflate memoir with autobiography a lot, but memoir is the artful rendering of an experience. For me, to get to the artfulness of it, I had to think of a person who could help me keep the good fat and cut out the bad fat.

6. Writing truthfully about my father: An act of resistance, an act of love (Allie Rowbottom, July 27, 2018, Salon)

Allie Rowbottom’s father, after reading a draft of her memoir, JELL-O Girls, says he feels suicidal. In this ruminative piece, Rowbottom provides a window into her writing process as pertains to the ethics of representing others, as well as conveys how important it was for her to stay true to her own story, even if it revealed wounds that others had not yet reckoned with.

I’m doing it right now, as I did when I sent my dad my book, as I did when I wrote it, chronicling my experience on the page, saving myself through writing, despite the painful fear of what the work I produce might lead my father to threaten or create. Facing this fear is the most challenging work I have ever done.

7. The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books? (Rebecca Makkai, December 6, 2018, Electric Lit)

She might just as easily, as many have done before her and many continue to do, ask how one could post about books on a day when there’d been a mass shooting, a day when babies were in cages, a day when toddlers were gassed, a day when… well, any other day, really.

How — and should we? — write or celebrate art with so many atrocities in the world around us? By examining historical instances of people writing in the midst of unimaginable horrors and considering the context within her recent novel, The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai asserts that art, now, as much as ever, can serve as a vital form of resistance.

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Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, GuernicaTin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.