“Narcissism!” we memoir-writers hear someone shout in our heads. But why should sharing one’s perspectives be seen as conceit? What nobler effort could there be than to attempt to shed some light on the frightening, generous ways of the world, even if it’s a ha’ penny’s worth? We all read memoirs—all books, in fact—to discover pieces of ourselves on the page, to feel less alone. To comfort a stranger, rather than to flaunt oneself: this is the memoirist’s highest hope. Whatever one writes about with honesty will surely have been felt by at least one person before—and perhaps that someone’s heart will ping on reading it described by another. We write, admittedly, to clarify and give heft to our own inner joys and sorrows, but also we offer these in-the-buff experiences to others so that they might see their own feelings more clearly. As W.H. Auden wrote, “Art is not magic, ie., a means by which the artist communicates or arouses his feelings in others, but a mirror in which they may become conscious of what their own feelings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.” In other words, art’s aim is to give the reader him or herself.
Nabokov writes of his first love:
I cannot remember the way Tamara and I parted. There is possibly another reason, too, for this blurring. We had parted too many times before. During that last summer in the country, we used to part forever after each secret meeting when, in the fluid blackness of the night, on that old wooden bridge between masked moon and misty river, I would kiss her warm, wet eyelids and rain-chilled face, and immediately go back for another farewell.
To read of Nabokov’s youthful ardor is to give us our own.
Truth: this is the job of the memoirist. Naked truth, as naked as we can make it. The literary memoir offers the reader a mirror: not one that woos by enhancement or adornment, but which reflects with rare and precious, shimmering truth. The job of memoir and all good literature is not to glaze or make up or cloak but to reveal the skin of a thing. And perhaps bare truth—stepping into the clearing—is a greater wonder, a greater gift, a greater mystery than mystery.
And furthermore, isn’t the greatest gift one may give, the gift of oneself, or one’s honest truth, one’s story? Each person’s iris is unique–to the extent that the eye is now used as a fail-safe identification method at airports. Like her iris, each person’s memoir is a rarity: a particular mix of time, place, and individual, a particular irreplicable perspective. This endlessly fascinating kaleidoscope of human experience, I submit, is one of the most satisfying curiosities, one of the greatest treasures of life. Don’t we all want to hear about different lives? What is more delicious than a real-life story? This is not narcissism, but an act of generosity. This is how it’s been for me. Does any of it ring a bell in you? And so a conversation begins.