Around the Writers’ Table: Writing about yourself

Last week, Professor Dame Sally Mapstone, the principal and vice chancellor of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, gave a commencement address to the class of 2020, who had returned to the small coastal town of St. Andrews for a much-delayed graduation ceremony after their senior year was unexpectedly interrupted by a global pandemic. My daughter Maddy was among the already graduated graduates, and I wondered what kind advice would be bestowed upon these students who have two years under their belt since leaving college. Surprisingly for a college so steeped in tradition — the school was founded in 1413 — Mapstone turned to popular culture, and talked about the classic 1967 film “The Graduate.” I believe she was trying to reassure the group that it’s OK if they’re drifting, as was Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, and advise them that they ought not feel beholden to follow a conventional path, which she noted didn’t mean they should all go out and find their own Mrs. Robinson. Mapstone quoted the most resonant line in the movie — the line that meant one thing when the film first came out, and means so very much more now: “I want to say one word to you. Just one word…Plastics.”

In this spirit of life being lived and advice being doled out, I reached out by email to four writers who have written what could be called nontraditional memoirs for their thoughts on writing about one’s own life.

Frank Bergon, a former English professor at Vassar College and the author of a dozen books, including “The Toughest Kid We Knew: The Old New West: A Personal History,” suggested following Chekhov’s advice:. “Who’s interested in knowing my life and your life, my thoughts and your thoughts? Give the people people, not yourself.” I would add, “In the process you do give people yourself.”

Joshunda Sanders, the author of “The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans,” and a former student of Bergon’s at Vassar, wrote back stating, “My advice for writing memoir is to be brave and focus on the aspects of your story that are about you. Of course it is ethical and understandable that others will have reactions (good and bad) to your work, but it’s your life and your memoir, based on your recollection and experience. Try to stay rooted in that as you write and after you publish.”

Philip Weinstein, who is also a former English professor — Swarthmore College — and the author of nine books, including “Soul-Error,” which he describes as a book of personal essays that are never just personal, had advice for those trying to figure out out what events in their lives are worth chronicling: “If it matters for you (whatever ‘it’ is), then it can be made to matter for others.” He added, “You can best bring to life what most brought you (happily or not) to life, and there’s a potential contagiousness is such experiences; others can be brought on board.”

And Nancy Slonim Aronie, who will be on a panel focused on writing about grief at Islanders Write, and is the author of the new book “Memoir as Medicine,” as well as the founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop, advises focusing on the emotional truth, and not getting tripped up trying to remember the details: “Don’t worry if you can’t remember specific facts. No one’s going to care if you wrote the dress was purple, but it was actually red. It’s the emotional truth that is vital. How did you FEEL about what happened? We have to believe you.”

Nancy Slonim Aronie, Frank Bergon, Joshunda Sanders, and Philip Weinstein will all be speaking on panels at Islanders Write, which takes place all day on Sunday, July 31, and Monday, August 1, at Featherstone Center for the Arts. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.

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