25 Famous Women on Writing Their Own Stories

By
Photo: Getty Images

This week, the Cut reflects on self-reflection with a series of stories devoted to the art of memoir. 

Whether writing a memoir, personal essay, confessional blog post, or private journal, examining your own life is far from easy — even for the professionals. For this week’s Self-Portrait series, we’ve rounded up 25 women’s thoughts on the joys and struggles encountered by female writers in telling their stories. Read on for their wisdom on everything from the tricky nature of memory, to sexism in the literary world, to the question of other people’s privacy.

1. Maya Angelou
“Autobiography is awfully seductive; it’s wonderful. Once I got into it I realized I was following a tradition established by Frederick Douglass — the slave narrative — speaking in the first-person singular talking about the first-person plural, always saying I meaning we. And what a responsibility! Trying to work with that form, the autobiographical mode, to change it, to make it bigger, richer, finer, and more inclusive in the twentieth century has been a great challenge for me. … The greatest compliment I receive is when people walk up to me on the street or in airports and say, Miss Angelou, I wrote your books last year and I really — I mean I read ... that the person has come into the books so seriously, so completely, that he or she, black or white, male or female, feels, That’s my story. I told it. I’m making it up on the spot.” —The Paris Review

2. Cheryl Strayed
“Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity. I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently.” —New York Times, April 2012

3. Lena Dunham
“The term ‘oversharing’ is so complicated because I do think that it's really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it's bravery and when women share their experiences, it's some sort of — people are like, ‘TMI.’ Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there's some sense that society trivializes female experiences.” —NPR, September 2014

4. Zadie Smith
“I wouldn't write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it's a very violent thing to do to another person. And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific. With my father, writing about him was genuinely an act of mourning. I didn't realize I'd be the person who used my writing in that way. I suppose I often think of my writing as quite impersonal. But it turned out, when my father died, writing was exactly what I wanted to do." —NPR, November 2009

5. Nora Ephron
“In the way I grew up, we knew that you might write about almost anything if you could just find a way to tell the story — that was what we believed in our house, that was religion in our house. Everything was copy. I've written this in an old piece, but when my mother was dying in the hospital, she looked at me and said, ‘You're a reporter, Nora, take notes.’” —Time, November 2010

6. Roxane Gay
“Online, almost anyone has access to disclosed intimacies. Contrary to what my writing might suggest, I am a private person, and knowing that certain information about me is freely available to anyone who might stumble across it makes me uncomfortable. The vulnerability of online exposure is infinite. The Internet is as permanent as it is ephemeral. Everything is archived somewhere, lurking. My disclosures won’t go out of print. They will never be truly erased. Sometimes, a stranger wants to know whether I was raped. Other times, a student in the hallway makes a casual reference to an old blog post I wrote about a gentleman friend making me breakfast after spending the night. But however vulnerable it makes me feel, this permanency is not a bad thing. It certainly makes me think more carefully about what I say, and when and how I say it, because I don’t want to mindlessly contribute to the void.” —“The Danger of Disclosure,” Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2013

7. Joan Didion
“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were … It is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.” —“On Keeping a Notebook,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1966

8. Elizabeth Wurtzel
“The reason it’s very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I’m just like everybody else. I know when I describe what’s happening with me that it’s going to ring true to other people. I don’t think anything that happens to me is terribly unusual, I think my experiences will remind people of their own lives, so I’m not afraid to say that I’ve done something so incredibly stupid or whatever." —Salon, December 2014

9. bell hooks
“One of the things that I’ve been critiqued a lot about is the level of confession in my work and my public ‘performances.’ If you read my early work, there’s very little attention to the details of my life, very little personal stuff. One of the things that I found, as I tried to cross boundaries, was that I had to give people something that allowed them to identify with what I was saying, and not just offer some abstract idea that might not have any relevance to their lives. That is all about the function of story. … Crossing borders means that at times I share things that I don’t want to share. But if you really see yourself as a worker for freedom, then the challenge is also on you to sacrifice whatever notions of privacy that many of us would want to hold onto, especially if we are clinging to bourgeois models of self and identity.” —BOMB magazine, 1994

10. Elizabeth Gilbert
“There’s no way to do it but be really honest. And that’s precisely where I was at that time. It just so happened that every single one of my questions and desires and fears intersected with like ten million other women who have all of those same questions and fears and desires. I, too, marvel at how suddenly I went from being the only girl in the room to everybody’s big sister, or whatever it is that I’m perceived as: soul sister to all these women. It’s a really peculiar honor.” —the Rumpus, October 2012

11. Maxine Hong Kingston
What is universal? There could be some peculiarity that you have in your self, but if you can make it an art, make it part of a story, then when another person reads it, it becomes part of his or her life. And so one's odd self and ideas become part of the human universal story. I turn my peculiarity and a craziness into something beautiful that we can all participate in. I put my imagining into the center of attention and it becomes everyone's ‘large’ life.” -—“Interview with Maxine Hong Kingston,” July 1996

12. Meghan Daum
“Memoir gets a bad rap because many of its practitioners treat it sloppily and without respect. They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession. Honesty is not the same as confession ... Confessing means asking the reader for something — for forgiveness, for punishment, for some kind of response that makes you feel less alone. Honesty means offering something to the reader — a piece of yourself or a set of suggestions. Honesty means making the reader feel less alone. Honesty is inherently generous. Confession is inherently needy and intrusive.” —Salon, January 2013

13. Alison Bechdel
“For most of the time I was working on this book I found myself in varying degrees of self-loathing. At first I didn’t know what was happening. I was afraid I was getting depressed. But then I realized, what else could I expect? Every day I was sitting down to work and immersing myself in these past episodes of shame, depression, anxiety and self-doubt. It wasn’t as bad as the original feelings, but I was having to relive them. It was like having a mild virus. My immune system was able to fight off the worst of it, but I was definitely running a fever.” —New York Times, May 2012

14. Jesmyn Ward
“The memoir is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It was so hard for me that I plan to never write another memoir again. Every day was a struggle ... The metaphor it calls to mind is when a doctor re-breaks a bone that has broken and healed wrong in order for it to heal in a way that is healthier for the patient. Hackneyed, but true.” —Vogue

15. Mindy Kaling
“You can choose not to write about your embarrassments and things that make you feel vulnerable, but it’s not like people can’t see them anyway. Most people think that everyone’s life is so easy in Hollywood. And, for the most part, life is pretty great. So those moments when you are embarrassed, or you feel slighted, or an idiot, or miserable — I think they’re good to write about. I mean, really, I cringe when I’m reading it. But it’s really funny.” —The Guardian, September 2015

16. Diane Keaton
“I did discover things about myself in the process of having made the choice to write a memoir. Writing gave me the feeling that time lingered. I let myself slow down and rework what I wanted to say instead of being impulsive like I am in ‘real’ life — whatever that means … I like expression in any form, but writing is different. It’s almost like you let your mind wander, drift, and sometimes take you to new places. It’s quietly riveting.” —Random House, February 2012

17. Sandra Cisneros
“The only reason we write — well, the only reason why I write; maybe I shouldn’t generalize — is so that I can find out something about myself. Writers have this narcissistic obsession about how we got to be who we are. I have to understand my ancestors — my father, his mother and her mother — to understand who I am. It all leads back to the narcissistic pleasure of discovering yourself ... It’s like an archaeologist discovering little scraps of preserved fabric, and you have to re-create what they were wearing by looking in a microscope at little fibers. That’s how I feel, as if all I have is tatters, a name and very sketchy things about ancestors — sometimes not even a name, especially for the women; they’re so anonymous that a woman gets lost within a generation or two.” —The Missouri Review, 2002

18. Janet Mock
“I wrote Redefining Realness because not enough of our stories are being told, and I believe we need stories that reflect us so we don’t feel so isolated in our apparent ‘difference.’ For so long, the media has been telling our stories through the filters of journalists, some well-meaning and others super-disrespectful, and I think it’s empowering to have stories that are unfiltered, coming directly from the source.” —Slate, February 2014

19. Sloane Crosley
“My parents serve as a lovely checks-and-balances system with each other about the veracity of what happened … There is a difference between asking for permission and giving someone an ample warning. I’ve always given a warning. You’re borrowing something; you leave a note to say you took it. You give them a galley." —Forward, February 2011

20. Audre Lorde
“With any oppressed people — and this is true of women, although it started with the Black poets — the ability to speak out of your experience and see it as valid, to deal with your definition of self and recognize that we must identify ourselves (because if we don’t, someone else will to our detriment) is a human problem. But when you’re a member of an oppressed group you’d better learn it early or you’re not going to learn anything because you won’t survive, except as a cipher.” —Denver Quarterly, 1978

21. Leslie Jamison
“If you honor the complexity of your own life — if you grant us entry into moments that hold shame or hurt or heat, and if you’re willing to follow that heat, to feel out where all the small fires burn, then your readers will trust you. They’ll find flashes of themselves. … I’m interested in essays that follow the infinitude of a private life toward the infinitude of public experience. I’m wary of seeking this resonance by extracting some easy moral from the grit and complication of personal particularity: love hurts, time heals, always look on the bright side. Instead, I’m drawn to essays that allow the messy threads of grief or incomprehension to remain ragged, to direct our gazes outward.” —Publisher’s Weekly, March 2014

22. Janet Malcolm
“Autobiography is an exercise in self-forgiveness. … The older narrator looks back at his younger self with tenderness and pity, empathizing with its sorrows and allowing for its sins. I see that my journalist’s habits have inhibited my self-love. Not only have I failed to make my young self as interesting as the strangers I have written about, but I have withheld my affection. In what follows I will try to see myself less coldly, be less fearful of writing a puff piece. But it may be too late to change my spots.” —“Thoughts on Autobiography From an Abandoned Autobiography,” New York Review of Books, March 2010

23. Marjane Satrapi
“Here’s the problem: today, the description of the world is always reduced to yes or no, black or white. Superficial stories. Superhero stories. One side is the good one. The other one is evil. But I’m not a moral lesson giver. It’s not for me to say what is right or wrong. I describe situations as honestly as possible. The way I saw it. That’s why I use my own life as material. I have seen these things myself, and now I’m telling it to you. Because the world is not about Batman and Robin fighting the Joker; things are more complicated than that. And nothing is scarier than the people who try to find easy answers to complicated questions.”  —The Believer, August 2006

24. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“We read memoir and fiction with different eyes. The appeal of the memoir is in the authority it has, not from its contents but from its label. To label something a memoir is, in effect, to tell a reader that they cannot doubt it. You cannot question. It comes with a prepaid label of truth. But, as a writer, I consider fiction more honest than memoir. I trust fiction more than I trust memoir... In writing memoir, I am very aware of my own self-censorship, very aware of the ‘I’ as a character, very aware of protecting people I love. Of course, not all fiction is honest, but fiction, by its very nature, creates the possibility of a certain kind of radical honesty that memoir does not.” —The Guardian, April 2013

25. Stevie Nicks
“The world is not ready for my memoir, I guarantee you. All of the men I hung out with are on their third wives by now, and the wives are all under 30. If I were to write what really happened between 1972 and now, a lot of people would be very angry with me. It'll happen someday, just not for a very long time. I won't write a book until everybody is so old that they no longer care. Like, ‘I'm 90, I don't care what you write about me.’ I am loyal to a fault. And I have a certain loyalty to these people that I love because I do love them, and I will always love them. I cannot throw any of them under the bus until I absolutely know that they will not care.” —Billboard, September 2014