Does Memoir Writing Make You Crazy?

Last month, Grace, a memoirist from Fort Greene, was having brunch with some of her colleagues. One of them — an attractive LA transplant named Sofia who layers her clothing in that elusive way you can never carry off — mentioned that she and her boyfriend were thinking about trying to get pregnant. Everyone congratulated her and ordered a round of pink cocktails. Grace asked her how she felt about it.

“To be honest, my first thought was, who should I tell?” Sofia said. “Then I thought, writing about going off birth control would be a great essay topic. So many people can relate to the experience of trying to become pregnant. And then I thought — wait a minute! An even better idea would be to write one about the decision of whether or not we should tell people that we’re trying.”

“Or, if you get pregnant easily, you could write an article about fertility guilt,” said another woman, a Boerum Hill freelancer named Viv. “But if you guys have problems, well . . . then the possibilities of what to write are endless.”

A few minutes later, Jennifer, a winsome content provider, came along. She’d just finished her tantrum yoga class.

“The woman on the mat next to mine was about 40 pounds overweight and it was her first time,” Jennifer said. “I wondered, should I say something encouraging to her? Or would that be patronizing? Then the whole entire time I was thinking, how should I describe her in my essay about this experience? And should I write a second piece about how it’s so unfair when my thoughts get cluttered during the hours I specifically devote to mind/body wellness?”

Since memoir has exploded on the Internet like a Bieber-Bloom kerfuffle, writers have started confronting the very real possibility that memoir is slowly driving them insane.

Some notice tendencies that should be cause for concern. Simple tasks like dicing an onion are now scrutinized for their potential to become an ‘Aha!’ moment. Grace’s children haven’t spoken to her for months, fearful that their next utterance will turn up on a trendy women’s website. Even her grade-school diaries aren’t safe–she says that she’s pored over them dozens of times searching for something humiliating. Nothing is off limits. Everything is content.

“It used to be that if you went to get a pap smear, that was an undocumented and unnoticed event,” said Sonata Lieber, a noted essayist. “Now it’s an entry into publishing.”

Some don’t buy into the theory that canvassing ones’ personal experiences for content has any adverse effects. “Believe me,” said J, a former tax attorney who splits her time between Chinatown and Vermont, “writing about my fear of rabid raccoons is way better than telling my lover about it 24/7, which is what I used to do with ex-boyfriends. Memoir has definitely allowed me to maintain a long-term relationship for the first time.”

But others are certain that they’re seeing the signs of insanity creep in.

“I think it’s time for all of us to admit what this is doing to us,” said Lieber. As a mother of two who documented her eldest child’s pre-school struggles in a popular live-tweet series, Lieber is all too aware of the hazards of memoir. “Now that he’s older, even Shepard has been affected. Last week we were at the zoo and one of the chimps was eating his poop. ‘You should write about that Mama,’ he said. ‘Especially since you just changed Finola’s poop over by the crested agoutis.’”

“Yesterday I ate a cookie,” Sofia revealed at the pink cocktail brunch. “I thought of 27 different essays I could write about it. It could be about guilt. Or Sensuality. Or Mindfulness. Or The Patriarchy. Really it was infinite.”

And that’s the problem. The idea of infinite possibility is the source of all psychosis, according to some stuff on the Internet.

None of the women at the table seemed to know what to do about the inherent conflict of memoir writing, but there is one thing they all seemed to agree on. No matter how crazy writing down the intimate details of their lives makes them, there’s still another genre that exacts a higher price.

“At least we don’t write fiction,” said Viv, raising her martini glass. Everyone nodded in agreement.

“Yeah, they’re complete loons,” said Grace, emptying her glass.


Lead image: Flickr/ John Levanen