A Memoir is Not a Status Update

Of course, not long after I’ve written about how I reflect on the past too much, I read a lovely piece in the New Yorker about writing memoir in our age of social media.

Dani Shapiro writes:

We live in a time in which little is concealed, and that pressure valve — the one that every writer is intimate with — rarely has a chance to fill and fill to the point of explosion. Literary memoir is born of this explosion.

Facebook updates. Tweets. Blog posts. Instagram photos. Always documenting, leaving a digital trail. Granted, I don’t do the best job blogging here on a regular basis, but you’ll find evidence of me somewhere on the web, at any given time. Evolving daily, even if only in a few bytes.

She continues:

I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details — the ones that we post and read every day — for the work of memoir itself.

I’ve written before about how I come and go, how months pass before you’ll hear from me again, how this space becomes stagnant — this site is more a museum of me, my posts like exhibits behind panes of glass. I’ve thought this to be a bad thing, and yet what Shapiro writes makes me think the opposite. Her piece reminds me to not forget the beauty of memoir — the process of letting ideas ripen, of letting life steep.

She writes:

I’m grateful that I wasn’t a young writer with a blog or a massive following on social media. The years of silence were deepening ones.

Ultimately, I’m young and impatient. I’m still learning how to be a writer. I do wonder what my MFA experience would have been like, for example, had I started now instead of 2005. Sure, we had email then, as well as online forums and social media profiles, and author websites and blogs. At the time, I was still on Diaryland, writing for a handful of friends and family, and sharing freelance clips and a resume on Typepad, and then Blogger. But it — all of this, this life on the screen — wasn’t A Thing just yet.

I wonder how that specific writing experience would be different, not simply because of the wealth of resources on the internet — mixtape archives, Facebook groups of long-lost strangers, more books on the subculture I wrote about — but because of the public spaces that are always open. The readers that are just a Publish button away. And the endless opportunities for release. All of this at a memoirist’s fingertips, even if she is not ready. Even if she tries to be alone.

I’ve been doing this work long enough to know that our feelings — that vast range of fear, joy, grief, sorrow, rage, you name it — are incoherent in the immediacy of the moment. It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters. There is no immediate gratification in this. No great digital crowd is “liking” what we do.

It’s a sweet, succinct piece — read it if you have a minute.

Also, thanks to those who commented on my last post on Boyhood and described your own processes of writing and reflecting on the past. You all provided food for thought.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

I am an editor at Longreads. For over a decade, I've worked on curation, editing, and storytelling projects across Automattic, including WordPress.com.

22 thoughts on “A Memoir is Not a Status Update

  1. You are so eloquently right. Memoir isn’t a status update (unless you’re Kim Kardashian!). I think a memoir is something that finds us and not the otherway around. I have just completed a memoir of learning a second language. Writing it wasn’t my idea; it was someone with more savvy than I have. Besides, I don’t like self-disclosure and writing about myself. I’d rather write about your or another person. But I did it because it came to me and, like a stray cat, it wouldn’t leave so I took it in. I’m working to get it published, but if that doesn’t happen, I can at least let go of it and move on to the next project that comes my way.

  2. A lovely post. I agree with your idea of letting life steep. As a reader I like to steep myself right down into the depths of a work. Today’s instant and constant need to respond means our media is full of first impressions and seeds of ideas that have not been truly thought out.

  3. Whenever a writer creates something, whether deeply personal or not, they put an intimate part of themselves into the piece. Given this, a time of going away to rekindle the material within is necessary for all writers. One can’t keep dipping into the well without finding time to refill it, so to speak. However, I don’t believe that a writer seeking the deeper story of a life event would no longer feel the necessity to explore this in a longer work simply because they had posted about the event on social media.

    1. Your protagonist perspective is appreciated as much as the article itself. It all boils down to what works for us as unique individuals writers, steeping memoirists and chatty bloggers alike. Reading from and contributing to both platforms enriches the results for all.

  4. Thank you for sharing what you read! I love the juicy statement: “It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves, thus fashioning stories in which we are characters.” I think we all go back and forth with love and hate for social media. I believe some events are too precious to take photos of or share with others in a brief status update, and I like to keep those private. Do you think we can still develop our best writing from the stories and moments we hide from social media?

  5. Had a writing teacher that talked about the same concept of not being able to write about your own life sometimes because you are too close too it. I agree that you need time to distance yourself from experiences to be able to write about them well. Recently began writing about my past in a new series of posts, realizing even with time you really begin to see things differently. Also realize the difficulty in writing about myself seriously. In status updates and such in the moment I can easily joke or be sarcastic and don’t care what people think. I tend to even do that with speaking about the past in person. But while writing about I find myself agonizing over details because I don’t want anything to be misunderstood. Anyway nice post, I’ll check out that piece, thanks for sharing.

  6. Sharing on social media…a topic I have thought about often. I recently ditched Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. I considered the brief “updates” to be supportive of a false sense of self, while also creating too much distance between friends and family, despite of the app’s intent to keep people together. I actually like sharing every day, but those platforms were not the right fit for my intentions. We shall see how long I can stay off. Thanks for writing on the topic.

  7. Memoirs and narrative fiction used to be written by celebrities. It is still true that finding a traditional publishing venue for this writing genre remains a challenge for unknown writers. However our modern communication tools allow us to either share some of our personal experiences or read about other people’s ways of life, something that was impossible not so long ago. I agree that too much sharing that often happens when we let our emotions run wild can damage the quality of our writing. Everyone has a unique story. Finding what is unique and giving to the writing a universal appeal is what is challenging. Then it is probably true that silence and personal quest matter in order to offer this kind of writing. As always, good to read another good post of yours, Cheri, and interesting comments as well.

  8. Nice! Thanks for posting. I often think the same thing — especially being from the world of Baby Boomers. I was fortunate, tho, when I was in my early 20s to get a great piece of advice from a man whose wisdom I respected. He knew I wanted to write, and he said practice the craft but don’t expect to publish anything others will want to read and re-read even until you have more distance from it and more experiences under your belt. Took me off the hook…until now! But proved to be true.

  9. Two phrases struck me: “the process of letting ideas ripen, of letting life steep” and “It is only with distance that we are able to turn our powers of observation on ourselves”. The immediacy and spontaneity of our super-connected, “always-on” age has its own appeal – and value too. But these quick,easy throw-away life commentaries have tiny lifespans and are quickly subsumed in the ongoing flood of newer, more immediate observations that grab our attention. We’re given (or we take?) little time to reflect and absorb before the next new idea comes our way. And short as our attention span is, I wonder if that isn’t because the time given to creating our instant daily pieces is short too. Memoir requires process. Digestion. Reflection. It’s the alchemical process of transformation that turns our personal experience of life from instant status update into memoir. And transformation takes time. Thanks for writing with the depth you do. This is such a thoughtful piece, Cheri.

  10. Sometimes, before social media, I would write in small bites that would qualify as “sorry details.” I might assemble a few of the scraps for a humorous holiday newsletter, expand on them for a column in the local paper, or throw them away. Those days seem a long time ago. I see social media as another medium with similar options. At some point our writings could be assemble for something greater. I assume this for the bloggers I read. I did experience the downside social interaction. I stopped going to high school reunions because now I know too much about my classmates :). The meetup site are a great addition to pull us out and back into the world. It seems to me at least, balance is there if you choose to find it.

  11. I love the way she writes but cannot agree with her. It is true that the “pressure of concealment” explodes in art after waiting but Adrienne Rich said that before social media. In fact, “the universal thread that connects us to the rest of humanity” (as she quotes Emerson) is what social media is. Granted that a lot of it is spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings at the moment in pre-made forms so that there is no recording of it in tranquility but writers can function at various levels, in the chaotic, immediate present and in finding threads after long deliberation. One aspect of recording of moments need not conflict with another. In fact, in the past, writers did communicate with one another via letters, a form more immediate than memoir and this did not stop them from penning the stories of their lives. What is more likely is that the new generation might come up with new ways of approaching the memoir and the genre might morph with time but the “slow, deliberate making of a story” will not stop.In fact, social media will encourage far more writers to write their stories than was possible before.

    1. So great: “our spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”

      Indeed, writers can function at various levels, and one way doesn’t have to conflict with another. I do struggle with finding that balance in style and voice, which I first experienced when I wrote my first book-length work.

      It’s an exciting time to write in all genres, especially nonfiction and memoir, for the very reason you state — new ways of approaching our stories.

      Thanks for your thoughtfulness, as always.

  12. Absolutely good revelations which we all feel inside….cognisance or awareness is only possible when you are detached but that’s tough as the person in question is you and the plethora of communication is plenty, which helps in a while to vocalise and just breath it out….a nice topic you raised

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