A couple of years ago I taught a course on memoir at Wesleyan University, and I noticed that many of my students (otherwise smart and generous people) were approaching the books I assigned them–some of my favorite modern memoirs!–with a jaundiced eye. Why should we believe this? They seemed to be asking. Why should we care? I chalked their responses up to the recent kerfuffles about made-up memoirs, what I have come to think of as pathological memoirs, in which the writers purposefully set out to dupe readers. But as time has worn on, I’ve found myself mulling over some different theories about generosity–not just when it comes to reading memoirs, but when it comes to reading and writing–both fiction and non-fiction.
What does it mean to be generous? To read generously? To write generously? Does it imply a kind of blindness, or dulling of the senses, or stupidity? That’s what our culture would sometimes have us think. Opening a book with a sense of excitement and exploration–of hopefulness–rather than with a skeptical show me attitude, requires effort. Hope takes more effort than skepticism. Generosity requires greater rigor than approaching a book with a defensive stance.
This is even more important when it comes to writing. When I sit down to write, I have to systematically eliminate all the nasty, judging, doubting voices in my head. They crowd in the room all around me, threatening to take over. Who do you think you are? They taunt me. Why do you think you have anything to say? Why should we–why should anybody–care? This voices are the enemy of generosity. And really, though I like to think of them in some metaphysical way as coming from outside myself, they come from deep within me. From a dark place I always need to keep my eye on. Perhaps it is most difficult for us to be generous to ourselves–and it all radiates outward from there.