We memoir writers are always questioning ourselves about how we use words and the presentation of believable events. We have a role to play in being midwives to our own and others’ stories. In writing memoirs the struggle with telling our truths, just the pain of doing it, can be like the most intense primal scream. Merely knowing the truth can hurt as much as childbirth, and sharing it? The fear of sharing some things has made me shake to my core. I am not alone, I know.
It’s a privilege to live in a time and community when being in a writing group encourages us to give voice to parts of ourselves we may have kept protected for decades. We have come out as survivors from abuse, severe emotional challenges, mental illness, failures, traumas, adventures. And this is why we writers have a special duty to speak out now. We know the pain of keeping things hidden and unexamined, the fear of examining them, the relief of writing, sharing, trusting the editing, and finally the incredible thrill of saying our truth artfully and having it received. We take each other seriously. We listen. We think. We question. These processes make us experts at something vitally needed in our cultural moment.
For centuries in Europe a special status was reserved for some of the writers and thinkers of the times. Durer, the master German artist, created odes to “Melencholia,” a questioning of the value of life—a whole-hearted, full-throated despair as profound as those Old Testament prophets who proclaimed society’s mistakes and the imminent wrath of God.
The French call a lighter version “ennui,” describing emptiness, a boredom with life. In the 60’s we spoke of “alienation” and the archetypal “angry young man,” which characterized a lot of 20th century male writers and poets. And now American society is faced with a dilemma. Have we unwittingly allowed the blurring of useful, even precious, questioning, as many writers struggle to like life during challenging times and have anguished throughout history—with darker questioning, even criminal tendencies, or the propensity to commit mass murder?
I bring this up because our stream-of-consciousness leader has spewed out a notion that might catch on. After years of destigmatizing mental health issues and making them, finally, safe to talk about, he appears to be advocating for more mental health institutions that separate the crazies out—presumably from normal folk, like he sees himself. Normal. So normal.
While the White House carriers on a dysfunctional love/hate affair with the press, we should remember it isn’t just reporters who bring these truths to light. It is us, fellow writers. We chronicle, tell the truth, and share, with courage, our reality. We must. It is our duty to contribute our kind of experience, the experience of allowing air, sunlight and breath into the wounds of the past—it is part of the cultural solution. We need to show others how to stop walling off painful experiences because we memoir writers have learned to look deeper—behind the Stepford Wives expressions masking our true human selves—to the healing power of airing the struggles that made us who we are.
Yes, I’m saying it, dear writers. What we do is a revolutionary act. Each act of telling our truth tears down the wall of lies and pretense a little more. Let’s tell it damn well. Let’s build a monument of our truth. Each piece we write, each book we publish, each poem, each play, each true word is part of that big beautiful whole.
K.M. McNeel holds degrees from Vanderbilt University, Trinity University, and Central St. Martins College of Art and Design, London. In the 1990s and 2000s, she was known for her interventionist art collaboration with the Natural History Museum of Oxford, England. She is currently working on a solo performance, her memoir of her time working as a communications officer traveling for charities, and a mystery novel.
Author photo courtesy of K.M. McNeel