How to Write a Memoir That’s More Than a Memoir
When one story’s not enough to tell the whole story
No one sets out to write a memoir on a whim. This particular form of nonfiction is almost always written in response to a personal experience that burrows so deep, it won’t let go until its whole story is investigated. The memoir, then, becomes that investigation.
The event that triggered my memoir Gaining was my separation after 20 years of marriage. More specifically, it was my response to that separation, which looked a whole lot like my response to adolescence at age 13. I stopped eating. And I started obsessively weighing myself, taking comfort in the declining numbers on the scale, as if my life would somehow get better if there were less of me. I’d clung to that same conviction for seven years while starving myself as a teenager. It hadn’t worked then. In fact, I’d written a book about the many ways it hadn’t worked. Back in 1979, Solitaire was America’s very first memoir about anorexia, and I thought, at the time, that writing it had liberated me from eating disorders forever.
Yet now, more than three decades later, I joked with our therapist that I was on the “divorce diet.” Fortunately, he was not amused. It was his response, really, that arrested this so-called diet and alerted me to the fact that something much more interesting than weight loss was going on.
In fact, I was repeating a pattern whose roots stretched all the way down to my genes. But I didn’t know that yet. I still thought there must be something about my upbringing that had trained me to think erasing myself would solve my problems. Therapy helped me confront and correct that idea, which in turn helped my husband and me build a new relationship to replace our busted one. Our separation ended. Marriage renewed. Therapy concluded.
But my questions about this repeating pattern exposed by the divorce diet only multiplied. So, I decided to write a new book about it.
What if your story isn’t the whole story?
This time, it wasn’t only my own story that interested me. I was still in touch with several high school and college classmates who’d also had eating disorders back in the 1960s and 70s. Most, like me, were perfectionists, introverted A students who’d gone on to substantial, if not stratospheric, careers and secure, if not dazzling, marriages. We trended toward rigidity, were exacting in style and somewhat uptight when it came to sex and intoxicants. We didn’t easily relinquish control. Few of us had been treated for our eating disorders, since little treatment was available when we were young. And, judging by appearances, I wasn’t the only one who had relapsed over the decades.
This group story had never been told. And it wasn’t just a story about eating disorders. It was about behavior as a kind of back door to self-awareness.
There was a reason I’d lurched toward weight loss as a booby prize when I thought my identity as a wife of 20 years was dying. It was the same reason I’d starved myself when I thought my identity as a child was dying. In neither case did I have any idea who I was going to become next, and that not knowing terrified me. This terror was a kind of existential dread. And what better way to act out the fear of ceasing to exist than losing weight? I dubbed it the perfect pantomime.
But I was no behavioral expert. I needed to find out if my theory had any scientific validity. So, I sought out several researchers who, between them, have written hundreds of papers on the latest eating disorders science. They told me that studies were just now confirming exactly what I suspected: deep existential anxiety can trigger eating disorders in certain types of people, and the personality traits those people share are largely genetic. The experts also told me that no one had done what I proposed, which was to connect the dots of personality and behavior to other aspects of life, like career, marriage, parenthood, and old age.
What if your story takes you outside your area of expertise?
It’s incredibly rare, as a writer, to find material that’s fresh and unique, and it’s even rarer when that material is your own. I felt as if I’d discovered the missing link to a problem that radically affects millions of lives.
And yet, I’m a novelist, not a scientist. And the book I wanted to write would not fit neatly into any literary genre I knew. It would include too many other people’s stories to be a typical memoir. It would trace my journey into the research, but it mustn’t read like a science text. And as useful as I hoped it would be, I refused to write it as a pop-psych book.
I needed help with this project, and I found it in Bennington College’s MFA program. By starting out as my MFA thesis, Gaining became a much richer, more literary work than I ever could have pulled off on my own. My advisors pointed me to the brilliant Andrew Solomon, who’d won the National Book Award for giving depression the same kind of treatment in The Noonday Demon that I was hoping to do with eating disorders. I discovered that Franz Kafka had written about “hunger artists”! I dove into the work of Kathryn Harrison, Simone Weil, Caroline Knapp, and Mary Gordon, all of whom had written exquisitely about the connections between hunger and love, family, power, desire, and, inevitably, the underlying thread of personality. All these literary influences wove their way into my book.
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Connect the dots to find your story’s purpose
Meanwhile, I kept learning more about the genetics of personality. For instance:
Are you drawn to strange new things, or turned off by change?
Do you quit when frustrated, or do you stubbornly persist?
Do you always follow the rules, or do you tend to bend them?
Crave other people’s approval, or do your own thing?
How about risk taking? Do you love that adrenaline rush, or do you run for safety?
These temperamental inclinations, I learned, are genetically primed. They’re part of your DNA, and they have a lot to do with your risk not only for eating disorders but also for success, adventure, addiction, and stability. Not to mention the kind of people you’re drawn to in love and friendship.
This gave me a lot of insight into my own tendency to avoid conflict by withdrawing — not helpful in my marriage. It also helped me see why I became a writer, sitting in a room by myself all day, and why I will never ever sky dive. But things got really interesting when my memoir expanded into the stories of others who’d had eating disorders. We had so much in common!
We truly believe there’s a right way and a wrong way to do everything, that rules matter, even if we choose to break them. And we’re organizers who love to color code our closets or devise new filing systems. We’re librarians and scientists, artists and doctors, teachers, and therapists. We’re endurance athletes, but not daredevils or team players. We’re persistent to a fault.
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How I wish my parents had understood all this when I was a kid — or that I did when I was raising my own children. But at least these discoveries could help other parents going forward. By recognizing and working with these traits, instead of ignoring or fighting them, they could help their kids develop much better coping mechanisms than eating disorders.
This new awareness could also make a big difference at the other end of the age spectrum. My interviews made it clear that any major loss that dismantled identity — like divorce, career failure, bankruptcy, empty nest, or widowhood — can trigger a relapse of eating disordered behavior. But not if we know we’re at risk. Forewarned is forearmed. If you understand that your instinctive reaction to major loss is to punish yourself, you can choose to bypass that destructive response and instead get help and focus on overcoming the real source of your grief. Knee-jerk reactions don’t have to be inevitable reactions. The key is to “know thyself.”
Why your story really matters
After Gaining was published, readers from all over the world sent me their stories. The big lie that you believe when you’ve got an eating disorder is that you’re all alone. These letters blew that lie out of the water. So, I edited them into their own book, Restoring Our Bodies, Reclaiming Our Lives.
This is the wonderful gift that all memoirs offer. Whatever we’ve experienced, however lonely we may have felt along the way, there will always be others who read our stories and identify, who can learn and gain strength from our wins and losses. Memoirs remind us that we’re all just part of one big fascinating human family.
This article was originally published @ medium.com on Dec 2·2021