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I Am Not An Aspirational Character
Preliminary thoughts on the self-helpization of memoir
Phew! Wow. It’s been a week. There’s an excerpt of Touched Out at Elle Magazine (!) on how talking to my kids about consent taught me to value my own autonomy. I also wrote an essay for Time Magazine on why I hate the phrase “they’re only little once.” Oh, and Touched Out received a rave review in The Boston Globe!
It’s been an utter delight, as well, to do some interviews withwriters—a reminder of why I love this little corner of the internet, which has connected me with all of you, and also to so many fantastic thinkers.
I spoke with the unparalleled expert on all things momfluencer cultureat her newsletter and her intro really did me in:
I also spoke with my former student and friendat her emerging newsletter :
Andand I discussed how hookup culture primes women for the institution of motherhood. We’ll continue this conversion IRL this coming Tuesday, Sept 12 (pub day!) in San Francisco at Green Apple Books on the Park (the 9th street location). I would love to see some of you there. There will be CAKE.
You can find the full book tour lineup below, and more info about registering for events and getting tickets here:
Despite all this buzz, I’ve really been missing this space! I admitted to myself several weeks ago that I would not be able to keep up with all the random to-dos of a book launch and create new content for this column once, much less several times, a week. But writing is how I make sense of the world. And while at times I’ve felt resistant to the pressure to publish on a regular schedule that comes with a space like this, I’ve also found that returning here to all of you, to write through whatever is happening in the world, and in life, has been such a gift. It’s taught me how to a be a better writer, thinker, and person.
So here are some preliminary thoughts toward a longer piece I will write when things are not so hectic, on what I’m noticing as I start to talk with people about Touched Out. Not just because it applies to me or my book, but because I’m learning what’s expected of authors, and especially authors of memoir— and perhaps especially authors of what we so loosely call a “mom book.”
Nonfiction has changed so much in the past few decades. In recent years, we’ve also seen an explosion of “narrative nonfiction” books and reportage on motherhood, some of which draw somewhat on the history of not just memoir, but literary journalism. As I’ve alluded to in this space before, I’m skeptical of what this (not the mom book, but all these shifts in nonfiction) has done to the genre of memoir and autobiography.
I appreciate how the use of voice and autobiography in nonfiction that would not really be categorized as memoir helps to destabilize the objectivity and de-personalization of The Expert. This is, as I see it, the major flaw of academic writing— the removal of the body and the person behind the ideas— and it’s a masculine construct that doesn’t serve good thinking or writing. But lately, there’s such a pressure for any nonfiction book to offer a solution— whether that’s a chapter that lists off policy changes we already know we need, or a plan or program woven into the text, for how individuals can change their lives in the face of oppressive systems.
I’m noticing this, too, as I talk about Touched Out. People want to know: how do we solve this? what do we do? what advice do you have? But that’s not the genre or project of this book (even though I do discuss, at the end of the book, some of the real political and social changes that would be required to de-gender care work). What we’re dealing with here is the self-helpization of the genre, in which the memoirist is expected not only to provide solutions, but to guru-fy themselves.
I’ll just note how individualistic this take on art is— as well as how clinical, how utilitarian, such that the work is no longer treated as a piece of art, but rather is expected to be a kind of proposal. I think this is true even for books that lean toward theory or criticism, like my own. But that’s not really the point of analysis. As I tell my students, analysis is about breaking the thing into parts and putting it back together in some new way that tells us something new about what we’re looking at. It’s about looking at a thing to a know ourselves better. And some books are meant to make readers feel things, to see the world in a different way, to put language to experiences that were previously shrouded in shame.
I question whether the self-helpization of the genre is something readers really want— it makes sense that when the world is hard readers might want answers—but it seems to me that this is more of a phase we’re moving through because social media makes it such that authors are expected to perform a kind of celebrity.
I felt the pressure while writing Touched Out to have things all figured out. I felt it on political and social level, sure, and had to remind myself that this book is not a policy brief— and that policy is made of language, often very stagnant language, and if we cannot crack open the language we use to talk about the problems that need solving, we’ll continue to spin our wheels in the same old place.
But I also felt it on an individual level. I wanted to have a better marriage, be a better mother, a better daughter, a better sober person, a better public speaker, a better friend, the list goes on, before this book came into the world. I had hours and hours of conversations with my therapist about how I wanted to have stronger language for the sexual experiences I write about in the book—and less shame.
Now, here we are, and like every person who has ever written a book, I remain a flawed and imperfect individual. The book is out in just a few days. I am not an aspirational character. And that doesn’t make the intellectual or creative or personal or emotional work I do in this book any less valuable.
Many early readers have written to me saying that this book has changed the way they think about their own sexual and maternal lives— that it has inspired a kind of awakening. What I value most about these notes is that for every person reading the book, the effect, the upheaval, the shift, has been different. Everyone is writing their own story in response.