Kim Barnes, author of the new novel A Country Called Home (and my thesis advisor!) told us, “Even if it’s a personal story, it’s NOT ABOUT YOU.” That statement will forever change the way I think about memoir. There is always a much larger, more universal, story surrounding any of the events we write about.
She reminded us that our service must be to the story first, to the craft, not to our personal experience. We are to “shine the light of why onto the what of the essay.” The “what” in nonfiction is always false tension; the actual tension lies in the “why,” the emotional arc of the story.