Why Write Memoir? Two Debut Authors Weigh In

What is the point of memoir? And why might an author choose to process their life experiences through that particular form instead of, say, fiction or poetry? In this conversation, debut memoirists Shze-Hui Tjoa and David Martinez reflect on what the form means to them and their respective books, The Story Game, an interrogation of memory, childhood, and PTSD; and Bones Worth Breaking, a portrait of the bond between brothers and the global forces that shaped them. Together, they spoke about honesty and pretense; the risks that come with writing about one’s family or religious community; and how memoir can both preserve and resurrect the past.


Shze-Hui Tjoa: From our memoirs, it seems that we are both people on whom damage doesn’t show up easily. For me, my verbal dexterity can act like a cover for my complex PTSD, while you write that for many years, your philosophy of “just […] pretend to be who people want you to be” prevented your substance abuse from being detected by others, like in your anecdote about almost overdosing in Arizona State University as a student. I wonder if our high-functioning appearances are related to our urge to write memoirs? I don’t think I could have written The Story Game as fiction. For me, the explicit truthfulness of the work feels crucial to its function. I love how this form lets me say what it actually felt like to be me, as opposed to what I might have looked like externally to others.

David Martinez: That overdosing incident is one of the reasons I didn’t want to write nonfiction. But I’d been gravitating towards it for as long as I’ve been writing. Part of what comes with being a high-functioning person with mental health and addiction issues is that you have to lie to survive. On the flip side, I’ve felt guilty for being high-functioning because my little brother—who shared my difficulties and was much more intelligent than I am—suffered in ways I didn’t with the law, how he was treated, until he died alone in prison. There’s a horror there that’s hard to come to terms with. In your book, you have a lot to say about your family, as well as an intense section involving a knife. What was it like writing about family and being as honest as you are about yourself?

ST: As publication day approaches, I feel some fear. My siblings, parents, and husband have been gracious about me revealing our painful moments, like one with the knife. Still, I worry that my choice to be so publicly vulnerable might make them suffer unwanted intimacy, or even danger and hostility, from strangers. I think back to a conversation with my sister, though, where I confessed feeling guilty about my memoirist’s voice “speaking over” hers. She said, “Actually, I’ve told my version of our story to loads of people, but you haven’t. This is your first time.”  It helps me to remember that my family members are real people with agency, who are also talking about what happened to us—maybe not in the form of a memoir, but through their relationships, their careers and businesses, even their bodies and the families they raise. I’m sure they are telling our shared story as influentially as I am. One of Bones’ themes is your experiences within the LDS church. What was it like to publish a memoir about this part of your life?

DM: It was hard on many levels, and I had to keep going back to why I was writing in the first place. I didn’t want the book to be about the church, but it does play a role. I kept going back to the questions: Why did my little brother die in prison? What was the path that put him there? Why did we both have so many drug problems from the time we were children? Why were we broken? Many of the answers have to do with family and school and so on, but I was raised in an LDS household in an LDS community, so church and church culture did play a significant role. That had to be talked about as well as why I no longer want association with that community. Religion plays a huge role in your book as well, and I imagine you were a very different person during that time you were so religious. What was it like for you to look back and document that former version of yourself?

ST: It’s helped me to accept her. In my twenties, after I left the Protestant church, I was consumed by disgust for this past self and the many “mistakes” she made in her religiosity. But writing a memoir about her—preserving her honestly and kindly—has helped me to see that she was just doing her best. Those teenage years were so physically grueling for me: long school days and nights, professional concert pianist training, compulsory tuition, and sessions where quack doctors tied me up to painful medical devices for hours to (unsuccessfully) correct my spinal scoliosis. In a life rigidly circumscribed by other people, the church gave me a space where I felt relatively free. And even as it took away my autonomy to explore, it gave me a beautiful experience of community. Writing a memoir prompted me to reconnect with some of the old church friends I used to feel for deeply, but broke away from in my twenties. I guess that accepting my past self has helped me to reintegrate these relationships. I’m interested in how you write about the themes of loss and change—particularly saudade, the palpable yearning that lingers even after life has moved on. Is writing a memoir about honoring that feeling?

DM: Yes, I think it is about honoring that feeling. Saudade is feeling the lack of what’s no longer in our present tense. It takes place in memory, and memory is a snapshot of life that has passed. It’s something we can go back to, that we know existed, but can no longer touch. There’s an intense beauty in that. As soon as life happens it becomes eternal whether we remember or not. It reminds me of that Adventure Time song, “Time Adventure,” which goes, “We will happen, happening, happened, and we will happen again and again, ‘cause you and I will always be back then.” Something about that rings so true to me.

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