Shades of Brave In Memoir

December 9, 2017 | By | 6 Replies More

If you write memoir or personal essay you’ve no doubt heard this: You’re so brave.

As if memoir is about confessing to having had certain feelings or experiences.

When I first began publishing personal essays, I understood the comment but was perplexed by it because it seemed so far from my intentions. I didn’t feel brave. And I didn’t write from a place of courage. At least not the kind of courage people seemed to mean.

Rather, I write to understand my motives, the way I relate to others, my personal history, and my experience in the world. In essay and memoir I seek to create art from this understanding. I write from my specific experience as a way to connect with others rather than to separate myself as unique. One of the joys of writing is creating art that resonates with readers because it illuminates our shared humanity.

Sometimes I suspect when people say, “brave” they really mean they are a little embarrassed for me. Or perhaps even scared for me because I’ve made myself vulnerable to judgment by putting “it” out there. Whatever “it” is — alcoholism, debt, divorce, sexual desire, eating disorder, children with lice, insecurity about my appearance, humble beginnings, or an imperfect family.

The subtext I hear is: I could never or would never expose myself like that. Or, aren’t you worried about what other people will think?

It may surprise some readers that sharing my source material takes the least of my courage. I spent so many years of my childhood and young adulthood trying to perfect a façade of attractiveness, intelligence, and financial security. As I matured, I discovered how many of my fears I actually share with the rest of the world.

Freedom from the “looking-good disease” has been my salvation and route to a happier and more serene life. This liberating awareness happened so long ago that now I forget about the initial courage it may have taken to come out of hiding.

In writing and publishing my memoir I have needed a different kind of courage. My goal is to be brave enough not to sugarcoat my role in my experiences. My hope is to be as hard on myself as anyone else in the story — harder even. The second kind of courage I have needed is what any writer needs: the audacity to believe my story and the creative way in which I’ve told it is worthy of readers.

Before I published my memoir, I’m the One Who Got Away, I had published dozens of personal essays. I was used to being exposed and thought I was inured to it.  But during my book tour, I have become aware of a little internal trick I do when faced with people who judge not only the subject matter of my book but my daring to publish it.

I see the judgment in their eyes across the book-signing table. The college acquaintance who says she pities my childhood. The friend’s husband who says he can’t imagine airing his family’s dirty laundry. The neighbor who didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t care what people thought.

“Oh, yes you do,” she said.

But she had misunderstood me. I care deeply if people appreciate my book. I care more than almost anything if people think the writing is good. I don’t care that I have revealed who I was and how I became the woman I am. Telling my story doesn’t make me feel weak; it makes me feel strong.

So here’s what I find myself doing when I meet those folks who seem embarrassed on my behalf: I smile politely and remember that my book is not for everyone. I am grateful that it is for a lot of people if reviews and sales are any measure. I glide over the surface of these comments like a water skier crossing the wake and then I summon the courage not to worry about what they think.

Andrea Jarrell’s work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, and many other popular and literary publications. She earned her BA in literature at Scripps College and her MFA in creative writing and literature at Bennington College. A Los Angeles native, she currently lives in suburban Washington, D.C.
Find out more about her on her website
Follow her on Twitter @AndreaJarrell
 As featured in the New York Times “Modern Love” column * a Redbook Magazine must-read * Harper’s Bazaar * Yahoo! Style, InStyle, Rumpus, Hello Giggles, Bustle, and Southern Livingmagazine Fall book pick

Fugitives from a man as alluring as he is violent, Andrea Jarrell and her mother develop a powerful, unusual bond. Once grown, Jarrell thinks she’s put that chapter of her life behind her―until a woman she knows is murdered, and she suddenly sees that it’s her mother’s choices she’s been trying to escape all along. Without preaching or prescribing, I’m the One Who Got Away is a life-affirming story of having the courage to become both safe enough and vulnerable enough to love and be loved.


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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (6)

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  1. Oh, Andrea, I can relate! I’m in the middle of my second memoir, and find myself getting two kinds of feedback from beta readers…those who love it, those who don’t. At first I wanted to change it to appease those who didn’t like it…but now I’m rethinking that. Why don’t they like it? It’s not the writing, they said so, it’s my revealing an imperfect me that they don’t like. Well…I’ve got news for them. I’m not ashamed that I was imperfect (good grief, I was only 18-19 years old!) Good for you for NOT sugarcoating. Good for you for not apologizing for being honest and YOU.

  2. Nancy says:

    This is a great essay, Andrea! You hit all the points, spot on.

  3. This is a fascinating article. I love these two quotes: (1) “Freedom from the looking-good disease has been my salvation and route to a happier and more serene life.” (2) “Telling my story doesn’t make me feel week; it makes me feel strong.” Brava! So true. Loved reading this!

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