It might seem that writers live pretty safe lives. Yes, there are some, mostly journalists, who immerse themselves in troubled and war-torn countries, and they can and do get hurt. But most of us who write sit at keyboards or notepads every day and create stuff—poems, plays, stories, essays—mostly from our heads.
Still, though we may be safe from physical harm, all of us who write know that every hour we devote to our notepads or keyboards, every moment we stop and think and dwell on the thoughts and ideas that will, in one way or another, find life on a page or computer display, involves a variety of potentially monumental risks. There’s financial risk, risk of never getting published, risk of bad reviews, risk of making enemies of those about whom we write. And there is no risk greater for a writer than emotional risk—which is why writing one’s memoir is ultimately the riskiest of all.
Think about the writer’s life. Whether we write for an hour or eight hours every day, whether we write before sunrise or late into the night after the kids have been tucked into bed, we are often toiling in limbo and with ongoing hope—and doubt. “Will I get it right?” we wonder. “And how long might that take?” It is all so isolating. It is not as if we can discuss our writing with friends and colleagues and neighbors. Talking about what we are writing, the essence of what we are trying to say, can and often does leave us empty when we eventually sit down to write it.
Never was this more true for me than when I sat down to write My Last Eight Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, my memoir coming from the University of Georgia Press in October. Will I get my own life “right”? And since Vanity Fair dubbed me the “godfather” of the creative nonfiction genre, won’t readers wonder how creative I got recounting my own story? Will even I wonder?
Writing is often spontaneous. Ideas are inspired by the sheer act of writing—even if we are writing our own histories. Sometimes it works. But mostly, alas, it doesn’t—not the first time or the second time or even the third time. Or the first month or year. We do it again and again, relentlessly, sentence after sentence, after paragraph after page, fighting the frustration and our demons, as well as the fear of failure.
When writing a memoir, the risks we take at the keyboard are only the beginning. What will our friends think? Will our family members object to the way we’ve described and judged them, or disagree with the way we remember incidents? Maybe some will think less of us based on the stories and the truths we tell. Or maybe they’ll question or criticize our decisions—how we behaved, how we parented, how we brought problems on ourselves. This can be frustrating and downright embarrassing.
So why are so many of us writing memoirs—daring to dissect our lives, put ourselves out there, on the spot? Because writing a memoir is the ultimate challenge. I know this, having written 17 narrative nonfiction books and countless articles about other people and various subjects. The lives of those we capture, their words and ideas, even their confessions, are a matter of trust and documentation. Yes, there’s a lot of pressure on you, and the risk of not getting it right.
But getting it right about yourself is a totally different ballgame. You are not writing as an outsider observing, interviewing, documenting, and digging. There’s little distance between you and your subject. You are deep-diving into yourself, and there’s no place to hide when coming to grips with fear, uncertainty, and the exacting and demanding goal of authenticity.
My hope is braving all these risks can lead to magnificent rewards, not only in real life but also on the page. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as seeing your words and ideas, your story, come to life in your writing. Though a close second is the elation when people reach out by email or letter, or stop us on the street, and say that they appreciate what we have said and how we said it, and that they understand and relate.
Our memoirs can make an impact, can change our lives and the lives of others. There’s nothing so daunting for a writer, nothing so risky, and nothing in the end so satisfying as writing one’s life, when all of the risks you take bring empathy and acceptance—the ultimate connection—from those for whom we write: the readers.
Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction, is a professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University.