I once knew a woman who had been famously kidnapped as a child. She confessed to me that she longed to talk about her kidnapping, but no one ever brought it up. “Why?” she wondered. The story had been in print, after all, the subject of national headlines; it preceded her into every room. She was left with an acute sense of apartness, her unspoken story roiling inside her. “What am I supposed to do?” she asked me. “Pick up the phone and call Patty Hearst?”
Though I have never been the victim of a famous kidnapping or any kidnapping at all, for most of my adult life, I have been preceded by my own stories — not so much ones that have been written about me, but ones I have written. I am the author of three, going on four, memoirs. I have captured my 20s, my early midlife, my years as a writer and now my long marriage between hard covers like insects trapped forever in amber. Those of us who have written multiple memoirs feel surprisingly alone. (What am I supposed to do? Pick up the phone and call St. Augustine?)
People who have read my work feel as if they know me. And while certainly there is a powerful intimacy inherent in the experience of reading memoir, readers who meet me seem a bit embarrassed by this intimacy, as if, rather than having read my books, they have seen me naked without my consent. They seem to think of memoirs as more personal than any other literary form, as if the word “memoir” necessarily signals confession, testimony, diary and strip tease all in one.
At a dinner party in Connecticut, I watched as a woman turned to Frank McCourt, who was seated next to her. “You must feel like I know everything about you!” Her tone was challenging, slightly accusatory, as if it was his fault for making her uncomfortable. “Darling,” he responded dryly. “It’s just a book.”
Shortly after the publication of my second memoir, I was startled to realize that I had become lonely. I had been speaking a great deal: in bookstores, behind podiums, on stages. I could weave articulate, compelling answers in discussion about my books. But when it came to my life — to that soft, pulsing, internal backbeat — people had stopped asking me questions, because they thought they already had the answers.
“I’m heading to Boston to visit my aunt,” I might say. “Oh, that must be Shirley,” a friend would respond, then change the subject. “My mother died of lung cancer,” I might say. “I know. I read all about it in your book.”
In “Essays After Eighty,” the poet Donald Hall writes, “For 70-odd years I have been writing about myself, which has led to a familiar scene: I meet someone, we chat, something stirs my memory, I begin to tell an anecdote — and the head in front of me nods up and down and smiles. She knows this story because I have put it in print, possibly three times.”
But there is a profound difference between what a writer does alone in her room — the honing, crafting, shaping, transcending of her own personal history in order to carve out a story that is ultimately a public performance — and the human need to quietly share in the most intimate possible way, to confess, to stutter out thoughts and feelings, to be heard and understood. Annie Dillard once admonished writers: “You may not let rip.” I keep her words close to me when I write from my own life. I think perhaps it should be emblazoned on T-shirts and given to first-year M.F.A. students. There is no art in letting it rip. When I write a book, I have no interest in telling all, the way I absolutely do long to while talking to a close friend. My interest is in telling