"What do you write about?" I'm often asked. The answer, um, is I, uh, write about myself, which automatically puts me in the company of Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and others who exude the belief that their lives are of inherent interest to others. My life is not that interesting and for the most part, neither is anyone else's, which might sound like an odd statement from a memoirist and producer of writers' events that focus on personal narrative.
But what I adore in the best of memoir and personal essays is not the I-did-this-and-I-did-that; it's the voice of the writer, the language itself, the humor, the wisdom, and most of all, what the writer has come to say. In the best of personal narrative -- James Baldwin, Nora Ephron, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson and Cheryl Strayed jump to my mind --the story works as a supporting cast for the author's take on life. And that brings us to t he very essence of how to write about yourself without sounding like a narcissist; arrive at the page with something you want to share that goes beyond the sorry story of the bad thing that happened to you.
Here are some tips:
1. Learn how to weave your take on life into your story. When James Baldwin describes his angry father in Notes of a Native Son, he's doing this not so we can learn about his family as an ends in itself -- although he describes the dynamic in such a compelling way, that might nearly be enough; he's showing us his father as an example of the legacy of racism, which is the frame of the entire book.
Besides the compelling story of her 1200-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail not long after her mother's death, Cheryl Strayed's Wild became a runaway hit because Strayed articulates her own hard-earned understanding of grief so well. She speaks of grief over the death of a loved one not as an expected obstacle, but as a time when we must to "bear the unbearable." She eloquently expresses something about the universal experiences of love and loss that is more profound than what most of us are able to articulate, and she shares her insights without hesitation on the page. This is what we want from writers of personal narrative -- a new perspective on our common experience that is expressed in uncommon terms.
2. Read lyrical poetry.
Like memoirists, lyrical poets use their own experience, but because their form is so condensed most of the story must be omitted, moving the pressure off the narrative and onto what the poet has come to say. If you regularly feed on the work of Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver and other masters of this form, you'll be reminding yourself of how metaphor and simile can take you deeper into your story, past the prosaic who-did-what-to-whom.
3. Focus on the other characters, not just the narrator.
By definition, personal narratives are told from the point of view of the first person narrator, but this doesn't mean you should limit the story to your own perspective. Spend time on developing other characters, especially those characters who take the narrator to task on a crucial point. Letting these characters have their say on the page is a one-way ticket out of creating a memoir subject to the fallacy of special pleading.
4. If you can't be deep, be funny.
Another way to bring your story to the page without the heft of self-absorption is to use humor, especially a self-effacing sense of humor. Witness Anne Lamott, Erma Bombeck, Nora Ephron, Spalding Gray and Tina Fey. I find it very hard to find fault with a writer who laughs at himself.
Want to learn more about voice in personal narrative? Come read my blog Writing Is My Drink or join me at my event Bird by Bird & Beyond with Anne Lamott in Petaluma, California on January 18th.