Novelist and writing professor Darin Strauss has spent the last five years talking and writing about the worst moment of his life, one that he bottled up for almost 20 years. But his voice still breaks when he tells the story.
“When I was in high school, I had just turned 18, and I lived a pretty normal life on Long Island,” he told a standing-room-only crowd at a panel discussion earlier this month. “I was with some friends, driving on this little highway to go to the beach. I saw some bicyclists in the shoulder. Then I saw one of them wobble and then dart into the road right into the front of me, into my car. She died.”
The accident, which killed a girl he slightly knew, wasn’t his fault in any way. But tremendous guilt, overwhelming anxiety, and a $5 million lawsuit dogged him. All the way into his mid-30s, he only dared to tell a few people about the horrific crash that helped define him. Until, that is, he wrote “Half a Life,” a stunning 2010 memoir that tells his story in stark and deeply moving terms. Writing about his past was a wrenching experience, and one he says he would do all over again.
Two fellow award-winning memoir authors joined Strauss to declare they feel the same way about their work: Despite the heartache, they don’t regret exposing their lives on paper. All three writers believe chronicling their worst moments contributed to healing, and they hope their stories help others. But all acknowledge it’s a rocky process.
On one hand, memoir is freeing. “Writing the book was a way of coming to terms with this huge pathos I’d been living with my whole life,” said freelance journalist Lizzie Stark, author of 2014’s “Pandora’s DNA,” which explores the grim history of cancer in her family and her own wrenching decision about how to protect herself. “The most relieving thing about writing the memoir is that I don’t have to walk around with the burden of these stories on me. I’ve told them. They’re in the book.”
But novelist and memoirist Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of 2003’s “She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders,” the first US bestseller by a transgender writer, cautioned that telling a remarkable story can come with a price. “As writers, all three of us have had this thing in our life we’d been hoping we’d get past. Now we’re spending the rest of our lives talking about the story of that thing we didn’t want to deal with anymore.”
Strauss, Boylan, and Stark spoke on a panel in New York City at the annual conference of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, a 1,200-member association of freelance writers and non-fiction book authors. I’m the president of the ASJA and put together the memoir panel, which I moderated.
Here are condensed and edited excerpts from the conversation among the three memoir authors about the rewards and challenges of digging deep to tell wrenchingly personal stories.
On the healing power of memoir
Strauss: When you feel bad about something and don’t talk about it, it sits on your head like a stone. When you tell it, even if you say, “I’m not going to tell this part,” you control it and get it off your head.
The book ended up being about how a lot of us feel guilty about things we’re not necessarily culpable for. It’s an uplifting book in a way, about coming to terms with stuff that’s outside your control, and how you can end up living with what you can’t change.
It helped me come to terms with what I was feeling. It was cathartic. I feel like I got a lot of out of it myself. That may be irrelevant to everybody but me, but it was important.
Stark: I wanted other people to witness and acknowledge my experience, and part of that motivated my memoir.
When you write memoir, it writes over some of your memories, makes them seem more meaningful and shaped. I edited them a bunch, rewrote them a bunch. It was meaningful for me to complete that arc.
On how memoir changes authors
Boylan: I thought that when I went through my transition, I’d go from Point A to Point B – or Point M to Point F – and I wouldn’t be a professional transsexual. I’d be a woman and be done.
In some ways, that ship has sailed. There’s a way in which telling your story can freeze you at the moment that the story is about. Yet life goes on.
This is something that happened to me 15 years ago, and in some ways my life as a woman is pretty similar to most other women my age now. A lot of it is about taking kids to soccer practice and making sure they’re ready for the SAT and doing my job. But it’s like I have to tell the story about being transgender now for the rest of my life.
Strauss: I talk about what happened in front of strangers all the time. It’s like this dog and pony show: Let me do my juggling act, here’s me, and here’s the girl. It takes something that feels sacred and private and makes it public.
On protecting the privacy of others
Boylan: [Novelist and memoirist] Anne Lamott has a great quote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Stark: I decided that if this would cause an irrevocable family fight, it wouldn’t be worth it. I’m lucky because my family was hugely supportive, and they never asked me to take anything out.
On the artistry of memoir
Boylan: Whenever you have a terrible experience, people very frequently say you could write about this, and get it out of your system. Well, here’s the terrible fact of the world: Getting it out of your system doesn’t make it good writing. Writing is good therapy, but good therapy is not necessarily good writing. There’s a value in telling a story and getting it out on paper, but that doesn’t necessarily make it art.
On honesty in memoir
Strauss: When the accident happens, I’m in complete shock, and the police stopped traffic on the highway, and everyone is milling around. These girls got out of their car, and I started flirting with them. My editor, [bestselling author] Dave Eggers, said you should take his out: It makes you look bad, and people are going to come after you. I said that’s the point.
One problem with memoir is that you can feel the writer forgiving him or herself all the time. I thought, I’ve got to make myself look bad at every opportunity, or it will make the reader feel worse about himself. Everyone acts inappropriately because of shock or grief, and I hadn’t seen that written about.
Boylan: On the page, I’m a much more entertaining and buoyant person. In private, there is definitely a lot of sorrows and troubles that I carry around. I’ve held back a little bit about some of the melancholy I felt.
But the story of the transgender person who’s miserable and sad has been told. The story of someone who’s lived a full life and triumphed has not been told.
On the wider impact of memoir
Boylan: When I was 18 or 19 and in my freshman year at Wesleyan University, I went into the library to find books on people like me, and there was nothing or worse than nothing, these books that were completely wrong. I saw a cartoon once that someone reading a book. The title says “All About You,” and the credit line says “By Not You.”
Sometimes I wish I had my privacy and I was seen as an unextraordinary soccer mom from northern New England. But now, the 2015 version of that young version of me can go into a library and find a book by me or the other transgender writers and know they exist in the world, and they’re not alone. That does good in the world and balances out the loss of privacy.
Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, previously wrote about a 2014 panel discussion among three authors who found redemption by writing memoirs about dark family secrets.