When I was in the third grade, my school hosted a Career Day. I watched as classmates arrived dressed as doctors and nurses, firefighters and police officers, ballerinas and popstars—any excuse to reuse a Halloween costume.
I stood there wearing a cardigan and a nametag that read “Librarian/Author.”
At nine years old, I already knew that what I wanted to do was write. I also already knew that writers need day jobs.
Since the third grade, my love of storytelling has taken on many forms: a rotating stack of library books, a handful of angsty essays, a high school summer at writing camp, a cross-country penpal, an undergraduate journalism degree, a general tendency to daydream.
But throughout most of my life, I’ve obsessively recorded and collected my own stories in a series of journals.
My practice began early: in elementary school, I filled pink sparkly diaries with lists titled People I Hate and Boys I Like.
During middle school, I transitioned to a three-ring binder with a large rhinestoned “K” stuck to the cover. On its loose-leaf pages, I wrote copy for sleepover invitations and dissected every mysterious interaction with the Boys I Like.
Then, my dad gave me a 2005 IBM Thinkpad and I chronicled my sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year-old heartbreak in a password-protected Word document called for myself.
Today, it’s a Google doc: more than 150 pages collected over the course of six years. It’s full of copy-and-pasted quotes, recapped conversations, end-of-year reflections, drafts of text messages I decided not to send—and a very thorough dissection of the Boys I Like.
At its worst, this document is blackmail. But at its best, this is a library of all my stories, a museum of all my former selves.
I look back at this document often. I know it might seem self-involved, and it probably is, but I can return to this place and become acquainted with an earlier version of myself: sometimes someone strange, sometimes someone familiar.
And though this document has technically lived online for several years, most of its entries have (thankfully) never seen the light of day.
Even so, there are some that I work at; I write and rewrite them until they feel complete, carving away at each memory until I write my way into its meaning.
And while this journaling has only been for myself, what I’ve always wanted is a place to write about my life in a way that feels purposeful and permanent and public. After all, it’s hard to hone your craft with an audience of one.
Now I know that the natural progression from pink sparkly diary to meticulously-kept-Google-document-journal-thing would seem to be, well, a blog. But I’ve never wanted a blog, and—besides a half-hearted attempt at Tumblr during 2009— I’ve never had one.
The admittedly embarrassing truth is that I’ve always felt I was saving myself for something more: a memoir.
Maybe it’s because I was born into the 1990s memoir boom, or maybe it’s because I’ve come of age in the midst of a first-person industrial complex or maybe I just read Eat Pray Love at far too early an age, but I’ve become fascinated with the genre.
I was first introduced to Rainer Maria Wilke’s Letters to a Young Poet during a high school summer at writing camp. Then I signed up for a freshman seminar at UGA and read Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s In My Place. I lingered over Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast that summer in Paris.
The appeal to me is somewhat voyeuristic, it’s the rare opportunity to read someone else’s for myself. But it’s also something more: it’s the ability to transpose someone else’s experiences on top of your own and search for the resemblance. What I love so much about memoir is that a person can write about her own life in her own voice and by the end of the book, you might actually recognize yourself on the page.
But sometimes, I feel very alone in this love.
New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger opened a particularly searing book review with the statement, “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” He yearns, like so many of his contemporaries, for a time when “unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”
That’s not to say that his scorn isn’t well-deserved; for many, the inescapable James Frey debacle of 2006 seemed to be the last nail in a coffin of mass-produced celebrity tell-alls and fake Holocaust stories.
Some writers will go to great lengths to avoid giving their work the label of memoir (see: narrative nonfiction, creative nonfiction, personal essay, autobiographical works, etc.).
In a piece titled The Meek Shall Inherit the Memoir, author Harrison Scott Key writes: “Unfortunately, I spent much of my adult life trying to write the sort of thing described by this word I don’t like.”
While I find all of this memoir-bashing kind of boring, what interests me really are the questions that such criticism and controversy can raise: questions of literary merit, of the limits to our memory, of our ability to rewrite history, of our obligation to the truth.
The questions aren’t simple, and the answers aren’t either. But what’s most interesting to me about the genre of memoir is that it’s so complicated.
And it has to be—so is real life.
a million little pieces
I’ve never lived in a world without texting, but I do remember messaging a middle school crush on AIM. I can’t imagine a day without Google, but I can still recall an elementary school teacher’s attempt to explain the meaning of a “googolplex.” I signed up for MySpace and Facebook at the same time. I didn’t have an iPhone until 2013. My baby photos aren’t on the internet.
All of this puts me in a somewhat precarious place; I can remember a childhood before social media, but I wouldn’t recognize my adulthood without it. And maybe this before/after dichotomy is why I’ve always struggled with the idea of whether or not I have a choice about living out my life online.
So I have some complicated feelings about the way social media changes some things... all things…. everything. Inevitably, one of those things is memoir.
Social media allows us to become memoirists in the miniature: we post favorite photos on Instagram and funny quips on Twitter, we mark every milestone on Facebook and update our resumes on LinkedIn. We create so much personal data that it’s exhausting—really. It’s been estimated that every few minutes humans take as many photos as were taken in the entire 19th century.
We record our lives immediately and instantaneously, creating a personal history that someone can scroll through. Without even noticing, we leave digital traces of ourselves all over the place: a million little pieces.
This leads me to the question that memoir is currently wrestling with: What does it mean to be a memoirist in the age of social media? What does the work of memoir look like today?
This question was the thesis of the hotly-debated and widely-circulated-in-the-blogosphere New Yorker essay, A Memoir is Not a Status Update. In it, Dani Shapiro writes about how memoir is born of an explosion, “the powerful need to craft a story out of the chaos of one’s own history.”
Shapiro worries that “we’re confusing the small, sorry details—the ones that we post and read every day—for the work of memoir itself.”
She recounts the events that led her to write a memoir (as a teenager, she lost both parents to a tragic car accident) and says she’s happy not to have been a young writer with a blog or a massive social media following.
She wonders what would have become of her if she had “come of age as a writer during these years of living out loud.”
I guess I’m wondering the same thing, too. What will become of me?
There’s no denying that emerging technologies have shaped the way we tell stories—the tools at our disposal are ever-changing and practically limitless: social media, livestreaming, 360 video, virtual reality. And with the supercomputer in our pocket, we can tell more immersive stories than ever before.
This kind of immersive storytelling can have far-reaching implications when it comes to journalism. But we rarely think about how these tools and technologies will shape the way we tell stories about ourselves.
In many ways, all of this access means it’s “a golden age” for first-person storytelling online. People are sharing their personal stories in more impressive ways than ever before.
- Cheryl Strayed, for example, turned her (then) anonymous online advice column for The Rumpus into a book called “Tiny Beautiful Things” that reads, to me, truer to memoir than Wild ever could.
- For 10 years, Nicholas Felton created highly-detailed and highly-visualized annual reports out of his personal data. (Unsurprisingly, he was a lead designer of Facebook’s timeline.)
- When Cesar Kuriyama turned thirty, he decided that he would record a one second of his life every day for an entire year and in the process developed an app that millions of people now use everyday to document their lives.
- Megan Tan’s breakout podcast Millennial documented her first year out of college in real-time and made The Atlantic’s Top 50 podcasts of 2016.
- And there’s always one of my personal favorites: Caity Weaver’s hilarious 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers.
All of these, however brilliant or bizarre, represent to me the innovation that has always been at the heart of memoir. While past experiments in the genre have been mostly in message (take David Carr’s "Night of the Gun" or Lauren Slater’s "Lying") what we see now is a radical shift in medium and rightfully so.
Memoir has to evolve as a form, not just because we have a new set of digital tools, but because it now exists within a digital culture. Technology doesn’t just change the way we tell stories, the culture of technology changes the stories we have to tell.
Some of it is just logistics—when referring back to certain parts of their lives, writers no longer have to sift through boxes of photos and journals—they can fact-check their lives against a complete archive of personal data. (I even fact-checked myself when writing this—when did I actually read Eat Pray Love? August 2009: I remembered the book exchange from Facebook’s “Wall-to-Wall.”) But some of it is more philosophical.
When our digital memories are parroted back to us by apps like Timehop and features like Facebook’s On This Day, they are, in many ways, deciding which parts of our past are important enough for us to remember.
I think what memoirists like Dani Shapiro might be worried about is that the automation of remembering will replace the autonomy of storytelling; that people will stop trying to search for their own stories. We can’t give up some of the burden of remembering, without giving up some of the privilege as well.
It reminds me of the parable of Socrates and the invention of writing.
Back in the fifth century, Socrates warned about the “invention of writing.” For the ancient Greeks, oratory was an art, and memorizing was seen as a sacred act. Socrates was fearful of something new, fearful of technology, fearful that a tool designed to ease the act of remembering would make us forget.
The great irony of this, of course, is that Plato wrote down every word Socrates said.
Memoirists are now tasked with something new: creating a personal narrative out of an overwhelming amount of personal data. The work of a memoir has always been to make meaning out of a mess, and it still is. It just feels like we have more mess to make sense of than ever before.
But when we think of memoir as a process instead of a product, what we get is something much more than a snapshot; a self portrait emerges.
the patron saint of oversharing
Sometimes, I think we forget that the very thing we hate about memoir—anyone who’s lived a life can write one—is exactly what we love.
Humans are hardwired for storytelling, and armed with the tools that technology provides us, it’s no wonder that everyone feels obligated to speak up.
The stories we tell about ourselves inevitably become a part of who we are and the ability to share these stories with anyone, in nearly any way we want, is an incredible privilege. It’s one of the undeniable things that the internet has afforded us.
And if there’s anyone who understands that, it’s Justin Hall.
Justin Hall first created a blog during his freshman year of college in 1994. Except it wasn’t yet a blog. Because it was 1994, and no one would say the word “blog” out loud for at least five more years.
Justin had been tinkering with computers since the age of seven, and finally given the secure, reliable internet connection provided to him by Swarthmore College, he decided to create a personal web page.
He used this tiny corner of the internet to do pretty much what we’d expect of a twenty-year-old boy—he aggregated web pages of sexually explicit content and provided personal recaps of his experiences with hallucinogenic drugs.
But at a time when there were only a few hundred websites (period) and no search engine to navigate them, Justin’s collection of weird and wonderful Links from the Underground was earning 27K hits a day.
This was an online world that I can’t even fathom. Unsullied by clickbait and fake news and viral videos, this was the wild west and Justin Hall was its John Wayne.
As his collection of links grew, Justin began using his personal page to share even more personal things: his poetry, his childhood stories, his complicated feelings about his father’s suicide.
He started writing everyday and about everything and with each post, he started to feel better.
Justin believed that anyone and everyone could pursue personal publishing, or as he put it, “This ain't mass media, this is media by the masses.”
So, he began preaching the gospel of the web—quite literally.
Justin believed in the “healing powers of online sharing” so much that he spent a summer on the road teaching web development in schools, in coffee shops, and even in mental institutions. He wanted everyone to know that the internet could be a place for them to express their authentic selves and feel accepted.
Eventually recognized by the New York Times as one of the first “personal bloggers,” Justin became an Internet sensation. This fleeting celebrity propelled him into a career of freelance writing and public speaking.
Justin travelled to Japan, dabbled in documentary filmmaking and video game production, went to grad school, started a company, got married, and continued to blog about this life.
After 20 years of blogging, Justin produced a short documentary in which he describes growing up alongside the internet—it’s worth a watch and, true to form, free of charge.
“My need for attention and my coming of age somehow coincided with the dawn of participatory media online,” he says.
With his blog, Justin recorded first-hand in real-time all of the accumulated lessons we’ve had to collectively learn about living a digitally-connected life: technology’s potential for both connection & isolation, how to navigate the fine line between a public and private life, the implications of self-censorship, the intense scrutiny of an Internet audience, and how to deal with trolls.
Listening to this, it feels almost like a crash-course in memoir-writing: How do we decide which parts of ourselves are fit to print? How do we write about our stories in a way that protects the people we love? How do we create a record of our lives that is both purposeful and permanent and public?
Today, Justin’s blog looks as if it’s been relatively untouched since it began. There is no parallax scrolling, no mobile-responsive design, no fancy slider, no real clear navigation. His website doesn’t appear to be advanced, but the organization is intelligent and the content exhaustive.
As I click through posts, I read descriptions of Justin’s family members, his advice to prospective college students, an imagined conversation with his deceased father, details of his college arrest.
There’s no denying that Justin was (and is) a weird dude.
I scroll through Justin’s life, and I feel something unexpected: I feel like I might know Justin. I feel as if I might recognize him from somewhere.
I click on a post from 2004 that reflects on 10 years of blogging:
“I was 19 when I started this site. I used it to keep track of my struggles then. Some of the specifics are different, but the core is the same - what is that feeling that gives meaning? What can I do that is compelling? What do I believe in? Who do I want to be? When I stand back far enough, and I tilt my head in the right direction, I look at this web site as a religious text. A spiritual record. A person's search for meaning.”
I read these words and cry. There is nothing literary about this, but there’s also nothing contrived.
And isn’t that exactly what we look for in a memoir? A person’s search for meaning? Beyond the questions of literary merit and “emotional truth”— isn’t this what we want? To look into someone else’s life and see a person we might recognize—maybe even ourselves?
In all of our gripes about the medium, we can tend to overlook the message. And usually, it’s the same. It’s, “What do I believe in?” or “Who do I want to be?” whether it’s written on paper or written in code.
So what will become of us? And what’s a young memoirist to do? I guess, exactly what we’ve always done.
We write about our lives the only way we know how—in our own voice and with our own set of tools. We try to be self-aware and self-assured and we try to make sense of our very small place in this great big world. And then we share our stories, maybe not for the clicks or for the credit, but because good work is worth putting out into the world.
We decide to carefully and consciously take up a digital space, knowing that maybe someday someone will read the things we choose to leave behind.
And at the end, maybe it adds up to something. Maybe it doesn’t exactly resemble the memoirs we’re used to—maybe it's just something different, but maybe it’s something better.
I want to personally acknowledge and warmly thank each of the individuals who helped me along this weird and wonderful journey into memoir: Abby Smith Rumsey, Michael Steinberg, Ethan Bach, Richard Gilbert, Lindsey Harding, Grace Donnelly, and John Weatherford.
Thank you for sharing your time and your stories; for reminding me that we write because we don’t know how not to; for encouraging me to keep asking questions that I don’t know how to answer; for reminding me that there is no replacement for a good editor (or a good friend); for allowing me the time and space (and course credit) to explore the things that I think matter most.
And if you’re not on this list and you chose to read this anyway, thank you. This is mostly for myself, but it can be for you too.