This year during Camp NaNoWriMo, we want you to write whatever it is that you love. This week, writers of all sorts are sharing what they love to pen, and why you should join them. Today, Jen Larsen, author of Stranger Here, tells us why memoir begins with Truth with a capital T:
So when I was in grad school getting my MFA, the first class we took—mandatory for everyone in the program no matter what genre they were interested in—was a creative autobiography class.
The poets, the novelists, the non-fiction writers: we all had to sit in a room awkwardly together and figure out how to talk about ourselves. To turn our lives into a story. To find narrative where there isn’t any—because life isn’t a movie: it doesn’t open with a snappy sequence, lead into a climax with car crashes, then end with a happily ever after. The challenge of that class was to take all the messiness of life and the uncoordinated jumble inside of your head and turn it into something real, and readable.
To narrow it down to its finest point: the challenge was to take all the awfulness and sadness and absurdity of life, and tell the truth about it. To be completely, thoroughly, painfully honest. To viscerally understand that storytelling, even when it’s stories about zombies and death squads and fairy princesses (especially when it’s stories about fairy-zombie-princess death squads) is about capital-T truth at the end, and nothing else. And when you know how to tell the truth about Truth, everything else is gravy, right?
Story is the way we process our lives. The only way we have to really understand how people and events connect and change each other in millions of ways we’d never thought about until we saw them together on the page.
And memoir, memoir is absolutely transformative. It’s a way to take an experience—your most sublime, your most awful, your most embarrassing moments, your darkest and most hideous thoughts—and turn them into something beautiful, powerful, important. It’s a way to connect over the most real things you think and feel.
And sure, it’s self-indulgent to sit down and write your own story, to take a deep breath and dive in with the idea that someone is actually going to care about anything you’ve ever done or cared about. But any art is self-indulgence.
Every piece of art and writing (fiction, epic poetry, knock-knock jokes and zen koans) begins with its creator taking the risk that it is worth doing. That someone will actually care. Every single time we open up our laptops we’re taking the risk that what we’re doing won’t matter to anyone.
Except every single time we open up our laptops, we’re doing something that matters. Even when it’s not good. Even when it’s messy and sad and strange and not exactly what we meant to say or ever expected to say. Especially then. It matters because the story you’ve got to tell about yourself is the story that’s the basis of every other thing you will ever write. It’s the essential essence of who you are and how you look at the world.
To write that down and understand it and see it and think about it—that transforms you as a writer. It transforms how you think not just about storytelling, but about yourself as a storyteller. It’s where you find the truth you want to tell, and how you start figuring out exactly how to tell it.
Jen Larsen is the author of Stranger Here: How Weight Loss Surgery Transformed My Body and Messed With My Head. She has an MFA in creative writing from the University of San Francisco and currently lives in Ogden, UT.
Photo by Flickr user Cali4beach.