on writing about one's life

During the course of this exploration into new media and memoir, I’ve spent a lot of time poking around the web. In the process, I’ve read close to 100 articles about storytelling, memoir, writing, and disclosing your life online. I found myself in some deep, dark rabbit holes of the internet but I’ve also managed to collect some really beautiful things along the way. Take what you need and leave the rest. 

(1996) Confessing for Voyeurs

“Why this pull toward the anatomy of self? In part, it reflects a phenomenon pervasive in our culture—people confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs. In an era when 'Oprah' reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept.”

(2006) The truth about memoirs

“The most interesting thing about memoir is the fallibility of memoir. We have a crack at getting it right. The notion of aspiring to accuracy is very important. The notion that we can achieve it is a fantasy.”

(2011) The Problem with Memoirs

“That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize than an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.”

(2013) The Danger of Disclosure

“Online, almost anyone has access to disclosed intimacies. Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable. The vulnerability of online exposure is infinite. The Internet is as permanent as it is ephemeral. Everything is archived somewhere, lurking. My disclosures won’t go out of print. They will never be truly erased.”

(2015) Story of My Life: How Narrative Creates Personality

“Storytelling, then—fictional or nonfictional, realistic or embellished with dragons—is a way of making sense of the world around us.”

“Organizing the past into a narrative isn’t just a way to understand the self, but also to attempt to predict the future. Which is interesting, because the storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing. Metaphors, sure. As college literature class discussion sections taught me, you can see anything as a metaphor if you try hard enough. Motifs, definitely. Even if you’re living your life as randomly as possible, enough things will happen that, like monkeys with typewriters, patterns will start to emerge.”

“What really matters is whether people are making something meaningful and coherent out of what happened. Any creation of a narrative is a bit of a lie. And some lies have enough truth.”

(2015) The First-Person Industrial Complex

“The first-person boom has had one significant benefit: There’s more of a market for underrepresented viewpoints than ever. And in some ways, we’re in a golden age for first-person writing online. Just read Heather Havrilesky’s elegant essays-masquerading-as-advice-columns for The Cut, or Cord Jefferson for Matter on working the “racism beat,” or Steve Kandell for BuzzFeed on visiting the 9/11 museum after losing his sister in the attacks, or Jay Caspian Kang on the roots of Korean American male anger. These are models of how to write about oneself in a way that is at once gripping and sensitive and that sheds light on broader sociopolitical issues.

But these essays seem like a different literary species alongside most of the content of today’s teeming first-person verticals, and not just because they feel so much more fully incubated and carefully conceived. Even when they are graphic and raw, their self-revelations are strategically dispensed. They don’t merely assert the universality of their experience; they arrive at it by guiding us through the precise arc of their self-reckoning. In fact, the defining trait of the best first-person writing is exactly what is missing from so much of the new crop: self-awareness.”

(2016) What writers really do when they write

“The interesting thing, in my experience, is that the result of this laborious and slightly obsessive process is a story that is better than I am in “real life” – funnier, kinder, less full of crap, more empathetic, with a clearer sense of virtue, both wiser and more entertaining. And what a pleasure that is; to be, on the page, less of a dope than usual.”

(2016) Historian Abby Smith Rumsey on how digital memory shapes the future

“Memory is the way the brain accumulates knowledge of the world and of ourselves. All creatures, from amoeba to zebra, rely on the working model of the world stored in their memory banks. Wipe those memories out, induce amnesia in us, and we won’t remember who we are, where we are, what just happened.”

You should also check out her book, When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Will Shape Our Future.

(2014) Lena Dunham and the challenges of memoir

“We remember things differently, and each of us is at the center of our memories. We’re the leading actors. There is the utterly subjective memory that leads us into argument and tension with others.”

(2016) The unforgivable half truths of memoir

“Every book is true or false in its sentences before it’s true or false in its facts.”

(2015) I thought nostalgia apps like Timehop were pointless. Then, I started using one.

“Our thirst for nostalgia isn't new. Previous generations, after all, made scrapbooks and photo albums. But the sheer amount of data we have about our pasts is unmatched throughout human history. Every few minutes, it's now estimated, we take as many photos as were taken during the entire 19th century — photos that are quickly uploaded to Facebook and Instagram, where they'll sit indefinitely. Yes, the age of social media has made our personal lives more public than ever before, but an equally dramatic shift has been the way it's made our past lives newly visible to ourselves.”

(2015) The Perils of Perfect Memory

“The vast and specific nature of our online information has the capacity to behave as a spontaneous external hard drive to our own memories. We can have—increasingly, can’t escape having—instant access to our past, seemingly bypassing the natural remembering process. Our hippocampus, it seems, can live on the web.”

(2015) The Social Memoir

“The journey from raw material to narrative is a long one, but worthy of the trip. And what a trip it is.”

“Memory is time, in archival form. And the cyber-universe is now my file cabinet full of endless drawers where the everyday experience of time and place is scattered here and everywhere, ready to be retrieved, aggregated, linked, tagged, and retold in infinite ways.” 

(2015) The Art of Memoir

“Partly what murders me about memoir—what I adore—is its democratic (some say ghetto-ass primitive), anybody-who’s-lived-can-write-one aspect. You can count on a memoirist being passionate about the subject. Plus its structure remains dopily episodic. Novels have intricate plots, verse has musical forms, history and biography enjoy the sheen of objective truth. In memoir, one event follows another. Birth leads to puberty leads to sex. The books are held together by happenstance, theme, and most powerfully, the sheer, convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”