Chapter 66: Before You Start Your Memoir
Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.
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We write about ourselves all the time, even when we don’t mean to. While we are trained and conditioned to tell our stories through other peoples’ stories, there comes a point when some writers feel the need to move out of the shadows and tell their stories without a filter.
This can feel liberating – finally, that’s me on the page, so take that high school cool kids who wouldn’t give me the time of day. But contemplating a memoir should come with a warning label: be advised that this can get complicated, painful, unnerving, deflating, and revealing in ways that can cause great discomfort. Movie stars and politicians write memoirs for which can earn large advances and wide readership even if they reveal little about themselves.
For those of us without names to drop (hint, hint…wink, wink, I may well have slept with persons A through N, just sayin’) or accomplishments to recount (and that is how I came to consider the Prime Minister a dear friend…) there is, in the end, only us – who we are, what we did, what happened next. Maybe, we hope, people will be interested.
There is a correlation between candor and curiosity: the more you are willing to tell, the more people will often want to know. But holding back, as you might to protect sources from themselves, does not always work when the subject is you. Many years ago, I submitted through a friend a first-person essay. I thought the piece was revealing. The editor disagreed. He passed on the piece, and wrote back to my friend, something to the effect of “this guy sounds like a weenie.”
I suppose he was right; I was not prepared to go all in. Writing about yourself means allowing people into your life, to look around, take the measure of you, and judge. It’s the last part that you might want to consider before deciding your story is a story you want to tell.
Keri Blakinger took the plunge and learned a thing or two about what happens when you invite people in. Keri’s new memoir, Corrections in Ink, is an account of despair, which leads to an eating disorder, which leads to addiction, which leads to prison. She is unsparing. Keri, a journalist who covers prisons at The Marshall Project (where, full disclosure, my wife is editor-in-chief) spent years writing about lives on the inside before telling the story of her own.
There were moments in reading her book when I winced not only at what she had endured – especially the endless, cruel, soul-destroying indignities of prison - but of her willingness to leave herself so unprotected as she told her story.
I wrote and asked how she did this.
She replied: “There’s probably two pieces to this: protecting oneself during the writing process, and protecting oneself after it comes out. For me, during the writing — most of which was in the thick of the pandemic, in 2020 and 2021 — I was lucky enough to be staying with incredibly supportive people. And it helped that I had some practice with writing dark, personal essays. But even so I didn’t realize how much writing this affected me until afterward. When I’d finish a particularly intense chapter, I’d look back and realize how depressed and moody I’d been for the week or two I was writing it — even though it didn’t seem that way at the time.
“But when it comes to protecting myself after the release, I think the biggest help has been — unfortunately — the routine amount of abuse I already get as a queer female journalist & felon just existing on the internet. Things that used to bother me don’t as much anymore because I’ve come to realize that it’s usually bad people who say these things. On a slow week, I get dozens of comments and replies hurling homophobic insults, targeting my appearance, telling me I should still be in prison, calling me a useless dope fiend, wishing me dead or telling me I'm too ugly to rape. People that say those things are just clearly bad people, though, so idgaf. If they liked me, I’d actually be a lot more concerned.”
Still, I assumed that, painful as reliving those years was, the process was also cathartic.
Keri replied: “I’m… not sure I found it cathartic. As a reporter who covers prisons, I spend a lot of time surrounded by reflections of my own past trauma — so it’s not as if these are parts of my past I haven’t revisited. I spend so much time with them on a regular basis that catharsis doesn’t really feel possible. I think the closest thing to that will be hearing readers’ reactions, when they tell me the book meant something to them or gave them hope or helped them see something differently. That’s not catharsis, but it feels like proof that I can manage to salvage something good from so many wasted years.”
If you’ve made it this far and still feel compelled to tell your story, it is important to consider one more question: is my story mine alone, or is there something that readers can take from what I have lived and learned that might speak to them?
It is a question that Keri had considered and answered: “I hope that people in prison will see this as another example of hope for second chances, and I hope that people outside of prison will better understand the systemic barriers that prevent everyone who gets out from realizing second chances the way I did.”
We’ll be off for a couple of weeks. See you in July.
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Nothing good ever came from writers punishing themselves. We know writing is hard. We’re here to show that it doesn’t have to be torture. Writerland, The Delacorte Review Newsletter comes out every other week. Subscribe to get full access to the newsletter and website. Never miss an update.