We’re living through a new, golden age of American nonfiction. While sensationalist tell-alls have often been best sellers, in the last few years, works that take literary chances, and essay collections about art, queerness, blackness, have (finally) found wider readership.
Nonfiction can still feels like literary fiction’s weird, significantly less cool cousin. But we have to be honest: Nonfiction books sell. Americans love true stories. And we believe, perhaps incorrectly, that nonfiction stories are the ones telling us the truth.
I’m a scientist. I’m also a writer, primarily of nonfiction, and specifically of memoir—which I pronounce, each and every time, as mem-oire, with overwhelmingly camp, gay, French affectation. I say it like that because Randall Keenan said it like that, in all his queer husky voice. It was Randall who first told me that I was a memoirist, and he was right, and I love him.
So what is memoir then, as opposed to other forms of nonfiction? While the essay makes an argument, and reportage considers a time and a place, Randall taught me, memoir reveals—or hides—the self, as a way to say something about the world.
Memoir looks in to look out.
I wrote a memoir in 2014—a long essay or short book—and it was published in 2018.
What are the risks, and the rewards, of using our insides to tell capital T true things about the world, and ourselves, about who and how we love and live in late capitalism on this melting planet of ours. How do we survive writing a memoir, while still living?
In 2014, I was reeling from having been in, and then leaving, an emotionally abusive relationship. My partner cheated and lied, and gaslit me before I had the term to describe his behavior. He lied about little shit to hide his big lies. He lied to hide himself.
Here’s a thing about abusive men that you don’t know until you’ve loved one: They’re easy to fall in love with. And when you decide to leave, the leaving hurts like hell. I didn’t understand why I loved him, or why I stayed when I recognized his abusive patterns.
Yes, he lied when he’d cheated and I caught him in those lies once. He also lied about who he’d gotten coffee with, where he’d worked that day. He lied about where he ate lunch, when we went to the gym. He lied when he said he didn’t enjoy having sex with me; I knew, inside, he did. I knew also that he was scared.
There was no truth with him, it shifted always. The only truth was his body, when it was there next to me, and I adored it. I woke, at night, pulling him toward me, kissing his shoulder and whispering, “I just love you so much” as I half-slept. He was – that night – still there, and I was always surprised at this, and grateful.
After a time, I couldn’t keep lying to myself, and I could no longer accept his lies. I left, wondering why I’d ever stayed. I’m a writer, so I did what writers do when they’re confused. I wrote. Marguerite Duras tells us, “To doubt is to write.” Joan Didion says, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Like Didion and Duras, my first draft was a personal document: I had no idea what it would look like when I sat down to write. I had no idea what I thought; I could barely understand what had happened to me. The writing unearthed the facts of the matter; facing those facts meant I had to see ugly things in my former partner, myself, and the world.
I wrote first for me. And then I edited for a reader I imagined. And then, with a reader in mind, I had to explain my impetus to write in the first place. Why air my dirty laundry, and his, and ours? So the story became also about writing the story, or turning pain into art. The book asks whether writing, and art, can heal, or at least be a step forward on that journey.
As a nonfiction writer, I believe in writing my world ethically. I didn’t want to write a book only blaming my ex, stating just what he’d done to hurt me, a listicle of my victimhood. I needed to be honest with myself: I knew he was cheating and lying, and I stayed. Why, why, why? I consented for too long to the relationship (why?), and I did things to hurt him in turn.
I had to tell the world as truly as I’ve lived it. I wrote about our sex life, our fights, our love. Our bodies and sex. And sex is messy. We’re faggots. News flash: we fuck in the butt. Our sex is messy. So, memoir, in my case, made a public spectacle of my body in order to rebuild it into something less bound to trauma.
When I went on my book tour, over the month my book came out, this was the weight I carried in that slim volume. We write sometimes what we cannot speak; but then we have to read from it, standing, in public, in front of people.
I’d written because I had no words, and I needed words to make sense of what I’ve lived through and what I’d done. I’d tried to write the silences between my choices. Here’s Marguerite Duras again: “Writing is also not speaking. It’s silence. It’s screaming with no noise.”
How on earth, then, could I possibly read this work out loud? In his book of interlinked essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee wrote, “The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would die, or feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when I was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.”
The years between the writing of a book and the public meeting that book is an emotional challenge to so many of the writers I know. One friend sold her book quickly, and then waited five years (and a publishing merger) for it to finally emerge. Another good friend is waiting, as we speak, for the novel he’d finished years ago to finally come out. Waiting for reviews, sales numbers. Waiting for the one review that matters most: what your mom thinks.
The timetable of publishing means that our work usually finds its readers years after we’ve written the last sentence, placed our final comma. We meet our past selves in our published work. Sometimes we’re surprised to remember who we once were.
When I got on stage to read, I had to reinhabit the world I’d been in when I then. I had to be visibly heartbroken over the man who’d broken my heart. Easy, no? I spent a long time distancing myself from that pain, but for my readers, they knew nothing of this world, they knew nothing of the hurt, not yet, and they knew nothing, too, of how I’d worked to heal.
My first tour event was in my hometown in front of my mom and aunt and sister and two of my high school teachers and my mom’s best friend. I stood, wearing a sheer shirt and a sports bra, at a podium in a too-bright bookstore, to read.
The book has sentences and paragraphs like this:
He taught me how to douche. I had never cared enough before to find out what worked for my body. I had used a brand that made me clean, but wet. Too wet. But he liked a clean bottom every time.
I shit on his sheets. Once when he was fucking me from behind. I couldn’t smell it, but he could. Once when he was eating me out. Sorry, babe.
Two days later, I read again. And then twice the next week. And again in front of a hundred in Los Angeles and a hundred and fifty in New York and then a few months later in D.C. and Philly and Northampton and NYC again and Providence and Boston and Portland, Maine.
My audience, in my reading and in the question and answer, didn’t want to see me—they wanted to see the narrator of my memoir.
I’d been hurt by what happened in my memoir. But my life hadn’t stopped accumulating pain or joy when the memoir was finished.
I am not my own narrator. Somedays I wish I were. I am nobody’s God, not even my own. I fell in love again, which helped me heal, and then I’d gone to therapy, and gotten a new job, and moved twice, and read a lot, and hugged my friends, and written another book, and then another after that, and all that helped me heal.
The trick of having the memoir in the world was returning to the emotion of the narrator, 2014 me, without undoing the healing I had done after I wrote the book.
The catharsis of writing was necessary for the healing. But then the real work came. I had to understand what inside me needed a man like him. It was the bullied little effeminate nerd I once was. But I love that little kid, and I wouldn’t change anything about him except how the world treated him. Every morning I remind myself that my own way of being, sensitive and caring and empathetic, makes me strong. The world is hard on sensitive, feminine men. Everyday, this work remains.
To write memoir and not harm myself more than life had already harmed me, I had to remember distance between my narrator and myself. I write memoir, but they are not the same.
I had to become the damaged self I had been in 2014, to pick him up, to act him out, and then after readings to be charmingly drunk but never too drunk. I had to smile about what had happened to me. I had person after person tell me my story was theirs, and I had to hug them and call them my kin.
My gay book is very very gay. I was shocked, when it came out, that straight women wrote to me so often saying that it was like I was a fly on the wall of their relationships.
It turns out men are trash, whether they’re straight or gay, and beyond that, a lot of them are abusive.
People write me online and thank me for telling this story. It’s a story that so many people are shamed into not talking about. It’s not a story for polite company, and that’s the point. That’s why I wrote. That’s why it mattered.
It turns out that your ideal reader might not be the person you imagined years prior, editing your words for the world. These readers were my kin, and the weight of their stories were added to the already too heavy weight of this slim book. Lives aren’t finished, until they are, but when my life ends, I won’t be here to write it down.
My book is my life. But my life is more than my memoir. Memoirs end. My life cannot be contained in these pages.
The only way to survive writing and performing a memoir is to treat the narrator like another human. A heavy human you can pick up, and learn from, and love. I loved my narrator the way I love myself, the self I was in 2014, hurting and crying and convinced she’d never heal.
“You fool,” I say to him. “You will heal, only to be hurt again.”
“Welcome,” I say to him, “to being grown.”
I learned so much. Memoir looks in to look out. But, sometimes, you just have to sit with friends, get a drink, dance and laugh, kiss and fuck. Sometimes, you have to live in the world outside.
I had to treat Joseph in my book like a heavy human who I could, at the end of the night, my arms tired from holding her tight, put down, turn around, and walk away from, knowing I had given them her, this former me, this hurt man, this inner child, knowing I’d given him my absolute best.
Joseph Osmundson is a scientist, teacher, and writer from rural Washington State. He has a PhD in Molecular Biophysics, and his writing has appeared in places like McSweeny’s, The Kenyon Review, Buzzfeed, The Village Voice, and other places. Cry with him on Twitter @reluctantlyjoe.