All the Memoir Ladies

True confession: I have no opinion one way or another about memoir. I have liked some and forgotten others.

But for a time, memoir was literature’s for-profit college. Its orphan home for the can’t-quite and never-will.

The worn-down casino where the addicts, the terminally ill, and the refugees from strict religion go to gamble their pain into royalties.

The genre where women can get published.

But these politics of memoir were subtext, at most, in Sarah Hepola’s recent essay on xoJane it-girl Cat Marnell. Cat Marnell spectacularly gives beauty advice couched in writing about drugs, addiction, and pain. And she recently quit to get high and write a book.


Hepola has actually been following Marnell’s work. I have not! No reason. Just haven’t. Nonetheless, I ate up Hepola’s essay about her fascinated jealousy of Marnell’s writing. And her emotional investment in Marnell’s persona.

Instead of addressing the gender politics of memoir, though—and of a particular kind of self-destruction spectacle we’ve seen more in Hollywood than in the pages of the Grey Lady—Hepola focuses on writerly jealousy. And on WUIs. Writing Under the Influence.

Hepola, who’s been sober a while, misses the booze-fired writing binges she used to have. But she doesn’t miss being a drunk.

I would get these funny zaps of envy reading her prose. I should have done more drugs, I would stupidly think. I should have fallen deeper in the hole. I was just a garden-variety lush, so enamored of booze I didn’t even bother with hard drugs. And I saw in her drug use and her writing an abandon I never allowed myself, and it gave her articles that unmistakable thrill of things breaking apart. …

People think you can’t write while you’re high, but I’m sure that’s not true. I loved the tippy-tap of a four-beer drunk, because your self-doubt melts away, and the hounds stop howling, and it almost feels as if you are taking dictation from the universe. After I quit drinking, I spent months unable to write. I would literally spend hours staring at a blank screen — typing phrases only to erase them again — and I would long for the late nights in a smoke-clogged apartment in Williamsburg, when I would be up at 3 a.m. writing so fast that my laptop nearly levitated.

The problem is staying in that place; I never could. I drank past the point of coherence. 

She interviewed Marnell while otherwise stewing in memoir, as both an editor and a writer. She writes eloquently about the pressures of memoir writing in the tweets-and-comments era.

I, too, had been wrestling with a maybe-memoir-thing about my own drinking — all of which means I’d been thinking about the potholes of addiction and autobiography more than most. I was interested in the masochism of self-disclosure: how punishing it could be to write about yourself in the age of Internet comments and snarky blogs. Yet people like Cat Marnell still stepped up to their computers and happily popped open a vein.

And later down:

People often complain about the narcissism of our moment, how everyone is posting and writing and talking about themselves. I worry about that, too, not only because such constant self-regard must surely mangle the soul but also because writing and talking about myself is a career for me. My experience with alcohol and private pain has given me a near-religious fervor for how first-person storytelling can illuminate the human experience: through your story, I come to see my own.

Yet sometimes, I feel as if we’ve tipped the scales too far. Way too much skin on display. People are too readily encouraged to hurl their secrets into the void. Maybe it’s how old-school feminists feel when they see half-naked girls grinding on a pole in a dark bar: Really? This?

Yes! Narcissism! Our current moment’s best way to either sin or succeed. Depending. And memoir seems just as narcissistic as all the blogs and tweets and Facebook pages.

But it’s only narcissistic if a reader thinks your words are irrelevant. A woman’s little story about her little life. Anyone from the outskirts of society writing about what doesn’t matter to Main Street.

Hepola’s perfect analogy to feminists belies what, to me, is the hidden core of this essay: memoir is a feminist problem.

Memoir bridges the public/private gendered dichotomy that we’ve been trying to eliminate for decades. Men get public space, women get private space. Memoir crosses that wall, putting the “feminine” realm of intimacy, emotion, and pain smack in the middle of public discourse.

This is why memoir is a genre both scorned and beloved. Addicting. Embarrassing. And ethically challenging.

A memoirist like Marnell is more readily compared to Lindsay Lohan than Michel de Montaigne (which is a totally unfair comparison, so let’s try Marilyn Robinson.)

As in, pure spectacle. A drama of self-destruction played out for an audience with unmatched appetite for such a show. An appetite whetted even more by Internet cultures of nasty, nasty comments.

But women are taught to be spectacle. We are taught to look a certain way, to behave a certain way. To keep our arms from sagging and our lovers from going hungry: advice from another beauty writer.

So when women respond with the biggest, baddest spectacle they can muster, we can hate them with greedy, needy fascination. Because they fit our precise expectations of what women should be: the objects of our fantasies, our dreams, of what we most love and hate about ourselves.

A magic mirror reflecting back on us what we want to see and leaving behind what we don’t.

So the memoir of self-destruction is ready-made for our culture. It allows the woman writing it to perform a show. It allows readers to flood Twitter and Amazon and xoJane with comments loving, hating, envying, and pitying the writer.

And, you know, if gives the writer a way to make money doing what she’s good at.

Because writing is hard. Writing a whole book is really hard. Blogging, books, essays, tweets. It’s all hard. Fiction, non-fiction, the messy in-between of memoir.

And writing is necessary.

Memoir writing gives marginalized people a chance to shout to the world: This is what a behind-the-curtains life is like!

These are the lives of people who are not granted public voices.

And who is more often told to be quiet? Women. Little girls should be seen and not heard.

The problem is that women have to be seen to be heard.


Here’s Marnell writing about Whitney Houston’s death, the addict’s tendency to die in a bathtub, Freud’s life and death drives, and her own interest in writing about addiction:

Why can’t we acknowledge that lots and lots of women abuse drugs? That they are a huge part of so many women’s lives? Including mine?

Why aren’t I allowed to talk about them? Like, a lot? On a “womens” site?

I just don’t get it. Is it because I’m not committed to “recovery” or a life of sobriety? Why does a person have to have resolved their drug issues in order to be allowed to write about them? Can’t a writer be conflicted?

And above all else, why shouldn’t I be honest about my life? Do you really think I don’t deserve my job, a platform, because I’m an admitted drug user?

I guess I make people uncomfortable, and that’s fine. If you want a recipe of the week, subscribe to the xojane newsletter or something. I don’t know.

Dude, so many people use drugs. So many people use drugs. I don’t know what to tell you, reader who asks me to stop writing about them. I understand that you don’t want to read about them. I keep trying not to write about them, and I keep coming back to them.

But I’m not going to shut up about this stuff; I’ll keep mentioning drugs in my columns so long as they are in not only my life, but in the world all around us, which they always will be. In a big way.

You call it oversharing; I call it a life instinct.

Because look. Look how easy it is, even when you are Whitney fucking Houston, to withdraw your voice and pretend like you’re a good girl and not mention that you’re using. To slip silently into the water. To disappear.

Marnell’s personal writing is both performance and lived experience. At the same time.


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5 thoughts on “All the Memoir Ladies

  1. Melissa says:

    I enjoyed this one, though I have nothing illuminating to add at this time.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks, Melissa! No need to illuminate. Your comment is lovely.

  3. Jane says:

    I’ve been studying the art of crafting the contemporary memoir/life writing and reading many memoirs as preparation for writing my own and presenting it as my thesis project this coming year. Many memoirs are excellent examples of the modern memoir (such as “A Three Dog Life” by Abigail Thomas, or “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls). Lee Gutkind (aka, the Godfather of creative non-ficition) has just released a book about memoir writing. An well-written memoir is not narcisstic at all, just a reflection on a segment of your life. “Performance and lived experience” is a good way to describe it. 🙂 Jane

    • Elizabeth says:

      Hi Jane,
      Thanks for stopping by! I know there’s extensive academic work on memoir. And I haven’t read any of it!! I look forward to learning more about your work. Is your MA in literary studies or creative writing?

      There’s so much hubbub these days about the narcissism of social media. It’s an interesting moment to be a memoirist.

      • Jane says:

        My focus is creative writing, though I took several great lit classes (no theory, thankfully 🙂 ) What are you reading in terms of social media? Sounds interesting. Best, Jane

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