May 31, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
I’ve been thinking about the pact between a memoirist and her discerning readers, including those about whom she writes, an unspoken agreement that what is on the page comes from a genuine place of curiosity, exploration, and a valiant attempt at reflective self-awareness. Trust is at stake. Is the writer narrating her own story without a self-serving agenda? From my experience as a reader, the answer is yes in almost every case—but not always. This is not to say memoirists are ever 100% reliable narrators because memory is faulty and conveying impactful experiences effectively is hard. The key lies with intent. It’s not the writer’s job to dictate how a reader feels; it’s up to the writer to tell her emotional truth the best she can and let a reader feel how she feels. If a memoirist does her job, her actions are recounted on an equal playing field with those of the other “characters” from her life. If a writer airs dirty laundry, her clothes better make up the bulk of the load. I strive for this, but still worry I’m failing.
I have a 15-page personal essay in the upcoming summer issue of The Coachella Review that I thought I would never put on the internet. It’s an eyebrow-raising story of my six-month marriage in 2005. I started writing it when I was still emotionally invested. I finished it as a different person who has no attachment to it at all. I’m a firm believer in getting words down when events are fresh and editing them from a temporal distance. In early drafts, I struggled with how to tell my story without sharing details of my ex-husband’s childhood that fell squarely under Not My Story to Tell. As a conscientious human, I knew I had to leave it out, and ultimately I didn’t need it. Sometimes brutal honesty is just brutal, and as a mentor explained, it doesn’t matter why my ex acted the way he did, only that he did. In the end, the essay is equally about my own illicit mistakes—many to which my ex still isn’t privy (Yikes!). Sometimes, what’s noteworthy is what a writer doesn’t say—the magical white space that leaves room for the reader’s own experiences and imagination. Also important is how the author presents her life choices: the tone, the structure, the attention to detail, and the relevance of each scene to the larger picture. (What does it all mean?) Often the memoirs with the trickiest ethical questions are the most empathetic—my favorite nonfiction to read. While editing my marriage essay, if I’d still been indignant or melancholy—or my intentions had been vengeful (gasp!)—the implicit agreement with readers would crumble, and they would notice.
It’s a rare occurrence when I read nonfiction that strikes as disingenuous or includes extraneous passages that make me question the author’s intentions. In most cases, I blame the editor. (How did he let this happen?) But, as much as we’re told to read meticulously crafted, thoughtful literature to grow as writers, I also find dubious work to be an instructive reminder of what not to do. (I hope my manuscript doesn’t sound this off-putting! Does that scene really need to be in it?) One of the most reassuring aspects of having an unpublished memoir manuscript seven years in the making is knowing I can always improve it. I haven’t upset readers yet, and, when I inevitably do, it won’t be deliberate, and that’s the key.
Before the pandemic, I loved book signings, especially when I’d already read the book being signed. Having a two-minute opportunity to heap praise on a memoirist and make a connection as a fellow writer who understands the hard work that went into creating her book always feels meaningful. I want nothing more than to read a memoir and immediately tell my family, friends, and other writers, “This is so good. You have to read it!” Even better, I love when I finish a book and am so in awe of its flawlessness, it pisses me off I didn’t write it. Holding a just-read memoir to my chest, shaking my head with my eyes closed, and thinking how did she do that? is my version of going to church. My biggest hope is one day, at least one reader will have a fraction of that response when she finishes reading my memoir, and that will be a good day.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her latest essay will appear in the summer issue of The Coachella Review.