In the carpeted bookshops I visit on an almost too-frequent basis, I find myself drawn towards the biography section, and the memoirs in particular. I’m increasingly riveted by memoirs, especially the confessional ones in which the author chooses to reveal in public subjects they often wouldn’t share with their closest intimates. The very fact that they do so with strangers, on the page, is as wilfully perverse as it is fascinating, for these are often stories of lives lived to their visceral edges but in which the narrator emerges fit enough – sometimes only just – to tell the tale. Fiction cannot always scale such heights.
Perusing my own bookshelves now, I see the no-sex memoir about the young woman who remained chaste for a year in order to better understand intimacy, and the old-age full-sex one about the sexagenrian learning to throw both caution to the wind and her pants to the floor. There are anxiety memoirs, the drug-dependency ones, the account of the woman going blind, the man going deaf, and all those more recently published examples of unhappy people finding unexpected solace in cold rivers, on horseback, or else by foolishly attempting to tame wild animals into pets when it’s clear to anyone watching that these beasts are anything but. They’ve got talons, for pity’s sake.
Anyway, I read them, many of them, avidly, endlessly compelled by their need to share, and I wonder why on earth they do it. What compels them? And at what cost?
Maggie O’Farrell was never going to write a confessional memoir. She was far too secretive for that, she tells me. ‘Also, I always like to think of writing as an alternative to my own existence, and having to live my life was enough. I didn’t want to have to write about it as well.’
But then she capitulated. In 2017, this author of seven novels turned her hand to memoir with I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. The voyeuristic memoir reader (me) doesn’t walk past a book with a subtitle like that without stopping to pick it up. I’m glad I did, for there may well have been no more compelling book written last year, and few quite as elegant. In it, O’Farrell reveals how she essentially lived a life mired by long-term ill health as a child, and then an adulthood full of accident, catastrophe and mishap. She’s the cat with nine lives, granted an extension by a benevolent God. Such multiple tales of bad luck may well have remained entirely private to her had she not then become a parent and found, as parents are often fated to do, that their children come with similar complications. It was the point at which her daughter started to ask that most plaintive of questions – ‘Why?’ – that O’Farrell started writing.
‘I kept thinking: how far am I allowed to stray into the overlap of the lives of others? Who owns the stories, me or somebody else?’
‘It’s a challenge when you are a parent to have to try to explain to a particularly young child who is right now suffering why they look different,’ she says, ‘why their skin is so sore that they can’t wear clothes, why they can’t go to school, why they are in hospital, in an ambulance. I found I could only do this for her by making it into a story, to metabolise it, and to give it to her in the form of narrative. Because humans have an instinctive need for narrative.’
But writing the thing proved complicated. While O’Farrell has long been an admirer of memoirs, she was all too easily shocked by just how exposing they were about the other people in the author’s life. This, she believed, wasn’t fair. ‘As a genre, it does impose a huge tax on your nearest and dearest, and I had no intention of doing that.’
So she wrote under strict guidelines, revealing only as much of herself as she felt prepared to do, and ignoring the temptation to keep those other incidents – of which, she hints, there were several – that might have made it into nineteen, even twenty, brushes with death. These, she suggests, were her business, not ours. She used the real names of as few people as she could, instead allowing them the anonymity of pseudonyms, and where relatives were involved – including her husband, the writer William Sutcliffe – she sought their permission to write about them. If they said no, she cut the text accordingly, something few memoirists would ever contemplate doing.
‘I kept thinking: how far am I allowed to stray into the overlap of the lives of others? Who owns the stories, me or somebody else?’
And yet still she agonised, convinced she was making a mistake, wanting to pull the plug on the whole enterprise. ‘I kept saying to myself: why have I done this?’ We speak on the phone, O’Farrell and I, so I cannot see her shrug, but I can hear the weary sloping of her shoulders as they temporarily ruin her posture. ‘But then you don’t always necessarily choose the books you write, do you?” she muses. “This book was a little like an unplanned pregnancy. It just sort of appeared, and I had to get on with it.’
Now that it’s published, and people have read it, and responded positively to it, would she ever consider writing another one? Her reply is a succinct one, and to the point.
The shadow a memoir can cast on its author is often a long one. Some writers might consider this problematical, others less so. In 1994, the American writer Elizabeth Wurtzel published Prozac Nation, detailing in throbbing prose her ‘atypical depression’. The book was as celebrated as it was vilified, the reviews polarised – ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘self-pitying’ both recurring critiques. She seemed to revel in this, and promptly became the bête noire of American letters, burning bridges and glorying every time she did so, and in her sporadic writings since – most recently, a rant about her recent cancer diagnosis, and how she craves sympathy from precisely no one – there is ample evidence of her flame flamboyantly undimmed.
More recently, Wurtzel’s twenty-first-century heir, the fashion journalist Cat Marnell, has found herself the recipient of similar opprobrium in the wake of her 2017 book, How to Murder Your Life. Now here was a memoir aptly titled, and Marnell a rich girl bent on chaos and destruction. She had started out writing about makeup and eyelashes before finding her true métier when she detailed her blossoming addiction to hard drugs instead. The more drugs she did, the more she wrote about it, her growing fame and infamy becoming one thing, two heads. She may have lost her magazine job, but, hey, no matter: she got a book deal.
Reading How to Murder Your Life is a little like being on a rollercoaster without the safety bar down. It at once brings out the parent in you, wanting to tell her to slow down, to not sleep with that particular junkie and to focus on her job, while at the same time intrigued to see just what happens when you fly that close to the sun. What the book did most successfully, however, was to underline to any prospective employer reading that Marnell was essentially unemployable, not least because where most memoirs finish at least with the suggestion of a happy ending, hers doesn’t. She continues to use.
The book was gobbled up in America, and much discussed in print, but the woman herself has since gone into hiding. This is of course merely a hyperbolic way of saying that she is currently refusing all further requests for interviews, but her silence does make you wonder whether she now regrets having been quite so upfront in her recollections, her scorching honesty. Because what does she do now? Murder her life again in a second volume?
I find that some memoir writers – and I include my students in this – want to reveal too much simply to get a reaction, to shock, to seek sympathy, even to get revenge
When I speak to Sarah Saffian, a therapist and teacher of memoir writing in New York, she tells me that it’s important for writers to remember why they want to write a memoir in the first place. Shock tactics, she suggests, will only take you so far.
‘As for whether it’s possible for writers to reveal too much and regret it afterwards, I would suggest that it’s less about what you share than how you convey it. I find that some memoir writers – and I include my students in this – want to reveal too much simply to get a reaction, to shock, to seek sympathy, even to get revenge. But you need to tread carefully. You don’t want to make your readers cringe too much, do you?’
Saffian undoubtedly has a point here, but there are nevertheless memoirs that seek unambiguously to do just that, and are no less powerful for it. Next month, the former Rolling Stone journalist-turned-TV writer Robin Green publishes The Only Girl, the sort of tome that may well be termed ‘no-holds-barred’ for the way in which she lines up those who have wronged her in life, and lets them have it. In detailing her working relationship with legendary TV writer David Chase on The Sopranos, he comes across as small-minded, petty and jealous while she is merely long-suffering and brilliant. She recounts, too, how she once researched a story on the offspring of Robert F. Kennedy and ended up having sex with one of them. He was, she writes, very well hung. ‘Probably halfway to his knees.’
Perhaps a lack of discretion as distinctive as this can sometimes be an art form in itself? Especially when you are deep into your seventies, as Green is, and no longer give a sweet damn whom you might offend.
But then ‘no-holds-barred’ is the era we are living in right now, the era of no secrets, of laying ourselves bare right across the rack of social media. Not merely in the shallow waters of Instagram, but more fully, and candidly – and often exhaustively – in blogs and vlogs. We know everything about everybody today. At least one positive consequence of this is how we now view, understand and empathise with issues of mental health, because the more people own up to their own, the more people feel prompted to do likewise. So if the actor Simon Pegg is interviewed by the Guardian about the latest Mission: Impossible film, as he was recently, then he is just as likely to discuss his previously hidden problems with alcohol and depression as he is his friendship with Tom Cruise. He certainly didn’t do that while plugging Shaun of the Dead a decade and a half ago.
This penchant for too much information inevitably finds its natural home within the confessional memoir. Far more pages here, and much more creative control. At their best, according to Sam Leith, a non-fiction writer and critic, ‘confessional writing is much more than just spilling your guts onto the page. It’s about giving artistic distance, shape, and making something out of all that raw material.’
The bestselling author Matt Haig gave artistic shape to his pain in 2015 with his book, Reasons to Stay Alive, an account of how depression pushed him to the brink of suicide in his early twenties. Now forty-three, he finds himself elevated into the position of mental health guru, something he never expected, he tells me when we speak, because he thought a depression memoir was only ever going to have niche appeal. Instead, it became a propulsive bestseller.
‘As a writer, you’d never turn down the prospect of success, of course, but I’d much rather have had that level of it with my previous novel, The Humans, than with Reasons to Stay Alive. It would have been far less exposing.’
The book, more luminous than one might expect of a depression memoir, and beautiful to read, did fall into the habitual memoir trap, however, the one O’Farrell tried so hard to avoid: offending those around him. Haig tells me that during the promotion for the book, he told the story of how his father had once told him to simply ‘pull myself together’, which profoundly upset his father, as he had believed he had been fully supportive of his son.
‘And he was supportive, very, but he simply didn’t know what to say at that particular moment. So it was out of context. I had to call him up afterwards and apologise. That was awkward.’
More awkward still was the fact that while the book was busy helping thousands of fellow depressives, it was failing to help him. At the height of its success, he relapsed, a common reaction, it seems, to writers in this area. All that expectation heaped upon them can weigh heavily. So as he was selling thousands, Haig was in the grip of an anxiety attack, ‘pacing around in circles in my living room, unable to cope. That made me feel a total fraud.’
And then there was all the trolling, because though he received much praise and support for his honesty, he also got flak, and ridicule. Piers Morgan wasn’t the only commentator to call him a snowflake. But then this is the line that confessional memoirists perpetually tread, as Leith points out. ‘It’s all very well sharing problems in the hope of easing them, but they are also offering up their work to the reactions and interpretations of others, which may not always turn out to be exactly what they hoped for.’
Haig could simply have switched off, of course. Who cares about trolls and their ungrammatical tweets? But he couldn’t, and didn’t. He cared a lot, unable to look away from all the poisoned slurs that arrived daily to taunt him. His new book, Notes on a Nervous Planet, is essentially a thesis on this very topic: that social media is harming us, and we would all do well to step away from it. You sense, reading it, that he is talking to himself here as much as to everybody else. He laughs when I tell him this.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I suppose I am.’
Let’s see if he listens to his own advice.
Like Haig, the writer and model Lily Bailey saw an increase in her mental health symptoms after writing her book, Because We Are Bad. Bailey has OCD, and what people with OCD don’t like, she tells me, is a void. ‘If we don’t have enough stimulation, our minds can tend to go back to that place.’ And so having successfully written herself out of her condition – her book is a fascinating account of just how obsessive behaviour came to rule, and partly ruin, her life – she found herself plunged right back in.
Writing, then, was in some sense for her a cure. ‘I keep as busy as I can these days,’ she notes.
‘I do think that in some ways these are the purest kinds of books. They go deep, and they can sometimes make a real connection with the people that read them’
Bailey had always wanted to become a writer, but never on quite so personal a subject. She found herself prompted into it after tweeting in fury over the way the media depicted OCD, as if it were nothing more than a funny little quirk involving lining up shoes correctly, and switching lights on and off. Then she wrote blogs about it which were picked up by the national press. In 2016, Martin Hickman, publisher at Canbury Press, asked her to write a memoir. She was twenty-three.
‘It felt very strange writing something as personal and private as this,’ she tells me when we meet in a café in south-west London, ‘not least because I knew that because this was fact, not fiction, I’d have to write about real people, and real events.’
This is something she did with fearless candour, and the supporting cast in her book features her longtime, and occasionally long-suffering, therapist alongside her parents, the breakdown of whose acrimonious marriage she details unflinchingly. It was only when the book was about to become a reality, printed and due in shops any day, that she thought it wise to let them read it. That’s when the problems began.
‘Mum was really proud of me, she loved the book, but Dad . . . Dad wasn’t. He hated the way I had depicted him, and he got very upset. I had to remind him that it was a true-life story, my life story, so I couldn’t only put in the good bits. I had to include the bad, as well. And I told him that by writing truthfully, it explains me, and who I am.’ She pauses to gaze out of the window, momentarily lost in thought. ‘But we’re okay now, I think. He understands.’
These are not easy books to write, then, and there can be consequences afterwards. No wonder they are quite so compelling. But if they do occasionally cost their creators dear, then it is nevertheless worth it, argues Haig.
‘I do think that in some ways these are the purest kinds of books. They go deep, and they can sometimes make a real connection with the people that read them. I’m not sure if it always does ultimate good for the person writing it, but as a reading experience it makes us understand our own emotions better, and it encourages us to talk about them. And that,’ he says, ‘has to be a good thing.’