As part of my researching process, I read the book Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature. A mentor of mine thought it would provide valuable insights about audience, as I struggled with choosing who I want to write to and what I want to tell them. There were a few excerpts and pieces of advice that stood out to me.
“The most powerful strand in memoir is not expressing your originality. It’s tapping into your universality. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be original in your writing—you are the only one who can write that universal experience in just that way. Trust that.” — Cheryl Strayed
Universal originality. This oxymoron actually made me feel wildly more confident that my piece could be impactful. I was concerned that documenting such a unique experience and focusing mainly on my own reflections could make my project inaccessible to a large audience. However, my project also emphasizes restrospection, intellectual curiosity, self-discovery, hubris, adventure, travel, romance, etc. In many ways, it is about a college kid learning new concepts and experiencing new things that challenge her beliefs. That is something most of us experience regularly at this stage in our lives.
“As a young teenager I looked desperately for things to read that might excite me or assure me I wasn’t the only one, that might confirm an identity I was unhappily piecing together.” — Edmund White
Edmund White’s recount inspired me to continue in the direction I was heading, as well. At first, I was nervous about writing something I couldn’t find models for. But isn’t that how we normally write? To create something new and unseen? Edmund emphasized the ease of venturing into a new terrain and creating a new space. This advice juxtaposed with Cheryl’s reminded me that it is okay to write something about myself, and then trust that others will relate to it.
“I thought that if I had a book like that, it wouldn’t have made the pain bearable, but it might have made it so that I was able to continue. Holding the realization of what this story could do for a kid like me who’s young now, and lives in the rural South, and might be losing people—holding that close to me when I felt like I was breaking every day—reaffirmed the importance of doing it.” — Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn’s advice was most impactful on me. Although her experience was much more dramatic (the death of her brother) the idea that the book could help someone else seemed so generous. Thinking, “Would a book like this have helped me?” My answer would be yes, as well. Just maybe if I had read something about culture shock and a journey from judgement to empathy, I wouldn’t have have been so bitter. Maybe I could have just felt less alone. As with Jesmyn, it was a story people needed to read.
In the end, this book made me reconsider why I was writing, which led me back to my essay from Gateway, “Why I Write.” Despite resurfacing some of the cringeworthy content my 19-year-old self created, I found it fruitful to revisit Point A in my writing journey.
“I write to answer questions.”
I welcome growth and change and evolution of thought, but I’m content to have remained faithful to at least one proclamation of my younger self.