Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

by Jerry Waxler

Read how our collective interest in turning life into story is changing the world, one story at a time.

A woman in my workshop wondered if it’s narcissistic to write a memoir. I take such objections seriously, because they can drain away enthusiasm from this project. To help anticipate and refute these objections, I’ve compiled a list of some of the top reasons people have proposed for not writing a memoir and offered suggestions on how to bust through each one.

But before you invest too much time in refuting any specific reason, step back and consider the way you achieve any goal. Take for example going on a vacation. The suitcase is too small, traffic clogs the road to the airport, and the flight is delayed. But you don’t turn back. You keep going. The obstacles are part of the journey, and in a sense are steps along the way. You are determined to reach your destination and after you push through obstacles, you reach the beach. Writing a memoir is the same thing. You want it, you overcome the obstacles, and you reach your goal.

If you feel mired in objections, switch your perspective. Instead of feeling like a victim of objections, become a strategist, turning your intelligence towards defeating doubts. Like a martial artist, turn doubt against itself. Doubt your doubt. Think skeptically about what it claims. Punch holes in it and watch its energy deflate. So now, with a critical eye, the reasons why some people worry that writing memoirs is self involved.

Is it because thinking about yourself is bad? Such a restriction would stop you from more than just writing your memoir. Without self-awareness you would be stuck. Understanding yourself is a generous act that can help you become a kinder person, more willing to serve others, less angry, more harmonious. By reducing the grip of regrets, and other self-involved emotions from the past, you become lifted out of your own worries, and as a result more caring toward others.

Perhaps you fear that it’s wrong and shameful to expect other people to read your story. I suppose at first glance that might seem self-involved… unless it’s a well-told story that gives the reader pleasure or simply offers them another slant of the human condition. You’re giving them a gift, and so, it would be selfish to withhold it.

To find out more about this concern of memoirs and narcissism, I turned to an article from the wonderful collection of essays in Slate Magazine’s Memoir Week. In this collection, there is a history of memoir bashing by Ben Yagoda. The article makes the claim that the spate of memoirs proves we’re becoming more narcissistic. To back up the claim, Yagoda includes impressive sounding quotes by famous writers. But just because a bunch of people express strong opinions doesn’t make their opinions right. I think their case falls apart when you look behind the curtain and see what they are doing. These writers are standing on their public platform complaining that other people want a share of the platform. Apparently they would prefer you pay attention only to them, or to people they deem worthy. Perhaps they sincerely believe the world will be a better place if we only allow the elite to speak to us. But that seems so out of step with our times. Haven’t we evolved beyond this point of view?

In the 19th century, the masses “knew their place” at the bottom of the pile, waiting for truths to come from pundits. In the 20th century, we became a faceless mob, drowning in logos, and slogans, fodder for marketers who wanted to know us only by our demographic categories so they could sell us stuff. Ironically, when my generation was growing up, we all decided to express our individuality the same way, by wearing blue jeans. The marketers had a field day. Rather than breaking out of the mold, we created a new one. I think many of us are ready to move beyond the authoritarian model of the 19th century, and the anonymous masses of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we want to share ourselves freely with others who have exuberant passion for life in all its diversity.

Out of the demographics of the billions are arising energetic and generous people who break through the wall of sameness and tell others about their individual history, a story that has evolved through the years of their lives, and that represents a life they have actually lived. Through blogging and memoirs, writers share the story of themselves and in turn want to know the stories of each other.

Each of us is an individual. We can’t get around that fact. We’re stuck with it. The challenge is not to become less of an individual but to become more caring about the other individuals on the planet. So we stretch beyond ourselves. To become a more generous, socially responsible, kind, respectful person we strive for a deeper understanding of what it’s like to be those other selves.

A wonderful way to break down the walls that keep us apart is to read someone else’s memoir. And a great way to jump into the ocean of humanity is to tell your own story. By telling your story, you participate in a world of mutual respect, giving voice to your own individuality and in the process expanding the vision and compassion of those who want to learn about you. Telling your story will help the world stay balanced and sane. So if you’re wondering if your story is worth telling, don’t worry about those people who don’t want to hear it. Reach out to the people who do.

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15 thoughts on “Is it narcissistic to write your memoir?

  1. Thanks for writing this interesting article! Writing memoirs? Best thing I ever did! I have two increasingly popular books, “The Wishing Years” and “A Tree Grows in Trout Creek,” both collections of stories about my growing up days. Not only was it therapeutic to write the memoirs, but they are also selling well! What a great way to get in touch with your life! And, when you get in touch with your own life, you can only be better at getting in touch with others.

  2. IMHO the difference is knowing the difference between what you might want to write versus what will actually be of interest to readers….

  3. I’m planning to print your post and ask my grandfather to read it. It’s become a sort of family project to help him record his life, but he feels that there are already plenty of memoirs out there by Holocaust survivors.

    His story is very difficult, yet very moving, and we feel that, if only for those who come after us, it is an important story to tell.

  4. Hi Thursday,

    I hope your grandfather finds some value in my article and can tell his story and share it with others. If he sees only horror in the memories, I can understand his reluctance. But I just reread Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and share his hope that there is meaning in life, if only we can find it. I’d like to imagine that in telling the story your grandfather might spot some redeeming insight or truth popping out like a flower from the ashes.


  5. I suspect that in some reasonings ALL writing would be considered narcissistic. Even fiction tends to involve a lot self-reflection. So many times characters have an element of the write written into their core. It might be something hidden or something more obvious. Many times when people write memoirs however it’s from a desire to share something with the world. To help others learn from their own unique experiences.

    Narcissism is also given a bad rap. Perhaps because it’s related more to a false image of ourselves. But I thought part of the journey to enlightenment was to “Know Thyself” and “Love Thyself”.

    I often wonder how many memoir writers struggle through the writing processes and come out bruised and battered on the other side. Is it then Masochistic Narcissism? *grimaces* Sounds like people will give labels to everything these days.

    People want to write memoirs, people want to read memoirs. Does it really matter what the writing and reading process involves? If it’s narcissistic to write a memoir is it voyeuristic to read them?

  6. I think that the degree of narcissism can depend on what you want the outcome of your writing to be.

    If you’re writing only for yourself or for those close to you, I don’t think the act of writing a memoir is narcissistic by any means.

    If you plan to have the memoir published, though, I feel it would be narcissistic to ignore the interests of your audience and write whatever you please. (In this case, the narcissism would really only hurt your chances of being published.) Writing for an audience always involves a bit of give and take.

  7. interesting. I am starting my memoir about growing up with a narcissistic father…I think this is a good sign. God has given me a voice and when i read the word ‘voice’ in the article I almost cried. Narcissistic personality disorder ruins lives, but there is hope and I want people to know that! Thanks!!!!

  8. Pingback: My niece reminded me I'm getting old | Memory Writers Network

  9. What I find interesting is that a famous person can write a memoir that’s really a book full of justifications and self-pity and it becomes a best seller and the celebrity then gets richer off regurgitating his or her misery, but yet if an everyday person ever attempted such a thing, we’d be told in very short order to “snap out of it”, quit whining or to ‘get over yourself.’ LOL

  10. Thanks Sabrina. One of the really awesome things I’ve learned about memoirs over the last few years is that these old stereotypes are changing. If your old fashioned friends or family still believe in the outmoded idea that you shouldn’t be thinking about yourself, look for more supportive people among your fellow memoir writers either in your local writing groups or online. Aspiring memoir writers are everywhere, and we appreciate the value of attempting to find the real story within your memories. It is possible that when you first start writing, it will sound like whining, but as you develop the story, and understand the facts and emotions and scenes, you will understand more, and be able to shape it and temper it to include strength, courage, resilience, wisdom, and the march of time. Most aspiring writers have heard the advice to silence the “inner critic” – I add to that the notion of maintaining a supportive, respectful inner audience to encourage you to find your story. Best wishes, Jerry

  11. Thanks for your comment, Brian. Writing and sharing your story IS a big deal. I wrote this piece about narcissism and memoirs in 2007, my first year as a memoir blogger. Since then I have read hundreds of memoirs and interviewed dozens of authors, and taught or met hundreds of aspiring writers, and I continue to be amazed at the maturity, wisdom, and generosity of spirit that writers cultivate in themselves and their audiences. By trying to find the stories of their lives, writer after writer has experienced a magical and transformative process. Good luck on your own process!!!

  12. THANKS for posting this again Jerry. ..and HI THERE!!

    Loved this: What I find interesting is that a famous person can write a memoir that’s really a book full of justifications and self-pity and it becomes a best seller and the celebrity then gets richer off regurgitating his or her misery, but yet if an everyday person ever attempted such a thing, we’d be told in very short order to “snap out of it”, quit whining or to ‘get over yourself.’ LOL

  13. Hi Michelle, Nice to see you. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, the celebrities get a much cushier deal, but every once in a while one of us ordinary people is lifted into the public eye by a really good story. That’s the magic of the memoir revolution. More of us are interested in real people – although I agree with you, I don’t think the celebrities are going to starve any time soon. Jerry

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