A student in my memoir writing class asked recently about whether memoir writing is self-indulgent. A good question, since it is easy to cross the invisible line. As memoirists, our goal should be to share a universal truth through our particular experiences instead of narcissistically sharing personal details.
Laura Fraser’s book, All Over the Map, offers the reader necessary truths through her journeys around the globe and in her heart. The chapters are organized chronologically and by location, everywhere from Oaxaca, Mexico, to San Francisco, USA, to Upolu and Savai’i, Western Samoa. She details not only the difficulties she’s experienced, but the things she’s done to persevere. With a strong narrative, it is far from being a self-help book. Fraser travels the world while keeping the reader close by with a steady pace. She writes after meeting with a personal coach (page 203):
If I don’t let myself be a victim in my stories but understand my role as the protagonist of my own life, I can get my power back and trust myself that I can, through my actions or attitude, make things turn out all right.
The advice that she receives from friends, and even a personal coach, resonate with anyone – male or female – working to sort out this increasingly demanding, social and yet isolating- world.
There is a longing that follows Fraser throughout the book. On page six, she muses on her early travels to Mexico (page 6.) The reader desperate to explore the world will immediately recognize her sentiment:
It was when I got my first taste of the wide world and felt a hunger for its endless sights and flavors. It was also when I first understood that being able to speak another language, even the few phrases one can manage at ten, isn’t just a matter of translating familiar words; it’s a way of expanding your internal territory and venturing outside the borders of your culture and family. The fresh new sentences change the very nature of your thoughts, your usual reactions, and your sense of who you are. I learned, that summer, that I couldn’t speak a little Spanish without becoming a little Mexican. That exciting summer in San Miguel de Allende – discovering the pleasures of discovery – was when I first became a traveler.
Fraser’s physical relationship to the external world is just as strong as to her internal world. She dances often and describes part of her dance journey (page 49):
The subtler lessons of dance class were harder to learn, such as the idea that in order to improvise with someone else you really have to listen to them, to respond rather than react, a notion that has tickled my brain every since but which I’ve rarely managed to embody.
The metaphor, here rudely torn from the rest of the narrative, is one that we can recognize, as dancers or non-dancers.
I took Fraser’s non-fiction writing workshop at the A Room of Her Own’s writing retreat last summer on the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. Her advice was attentive and crisp, offered with great respect for the writing. She read a section of this book, on her Outward Bound experience, and we were captivated by the humor and connection we felt to her experiences.
And so, writers, no, a memoir or a story that features you as the protagonist doesn’t have to be self-indulgent. As Fraser suggested at the retreat, read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and you’ll be fine on your own journey. Like a journalist, be sure to tell the truth. In an interview with author Mary Roach, Laura Fraser discusses truth in her memoir writing, “I guess the journalist in me believes that memoirs should be true. I mean, dialogue is never word for word, and memory is always faulty – memoir is about the truth to the best of your ability to remember it – but I don’t believe in embellishing anything. If you want to do that, just call it ‘fiction.’”