What happens after you tell your story? That’s a story in itself | Life and style

If you write about yourself, you learn how to choose which of your selves to write about. Half art, half admin, some light savagery is required as you tell the other ones to wait in the bedroom and be extremely quiet. You organise the mirrors so that readers see the correct parts in the correct light, to protect the softer selves, or those with parts still moving.

There’s a conversation happening right now about the support offered to those writing memoirs, typically people publishing their first books, writing about their most traumatic experiences, then breathing into a paper bag as their family, strangers, lawyers and the internet itself judges and pities them across 24 time zones.

Blake Morrison talked recently about the sneers an author gets when writing about their family. “The accusation any memoir writer has to face,” is “that to publicise difficult family stuff is mercenary, opportunistic and, worst of all, un-literary.” But that’s the least of it, really. Writing in the Bookseller about the ethics of publishing memoirs, agent Rachel Mills said the bleakest moments of her career had been with authors for whom the process had been horribly destructive, financially and mentally, including, “The Black author who cried… feeling that the hardback not meeting sales expectations meant the publisher would never acquire a book from someone who looked like her again and that this was her fault.”

And last week Terri White, who’s currently developing her brilliant memoir about poverty, abuse and mental illness for Netflix, wrote about the pain of “excavating memories I buried decades ago. I had to not just dig them out, but summon the life itself… There’s something almost masochistic in resurrecting that.” Every “life-writer” I know has felt at best a psychic unmooring upon exhuming their history for loved ones and critics, at worst a series of small explosions. Sylvia Plath (Mills points out) “died of suicide shortly after her autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, came out. I wonder: did the telling of her story to the world contribute to her desperation?”

A similar discussion happened recently around the aftercare of reality-show stars, who typically return to real life cast as villains or sluts, and must find strategies to work and walk calmly through a world that loves to hate them. After the death of a Love Island contestant, the show started offering its stars therapy, and training in social media and financial management. It was an acknowledgment of the abusive relationship we have, as audiences, with those who offer a flake of their lives for our entertainment.

This subject is something I think about not just when I’m watching telly, or writing these weekly columns about myself, or when I’m reading memoirs about grief or divorce – but when I hear again the insistent plea that everybody must talk about their mental health.

This is where we are all memoirists, encouraged to speak up, speak loudly, go deep, own our shame, post our tears on Instagram, ask for help. And then, what? Sometimes it is liberating. Sometimes it’s necessary. But sometimes it leaves a person feeling worse and less heard than before they spoke, whether that’s because they then get lost in the waiting lists and crumbling infrastructure of modern healthcare, or because the people they talked to didn’t react in a way that was helpful. Those writing memoirs or being interviewed on TV don’t have a choice about who hears their story, but the rest of us do. And while showing vulnerability can be important, it’s crucial to be cautious and sensible about who we are vulnerable to. This bit gets lost sometimes I think, in the modern rush to share our feelings.

I’m pro-memoir, of course. Pro-feelings, too, to a point. I’m all for the spilling of trauma, the lancing of boils, the dragging of stories up from the cellar and spreading them all over Twitter for the afternoon crowd. But in the same way pregnant people go to classes to learn how to breathe through labour before waddling off with not even a leaflet about how to navigate the unknown rest of their parenting lives, it becomes more and more clear how little attention has been paid to the complex world a person finds themselves in after they have bared their soul.

Every story told has consequences; they sprout in unexpected and unmanageable directions. There are the people discussed, whose own tellings of the story will differ, and who may be hurt or shocked by the revelations. There are the people the story resonates with, who get in touch with their own traumas, and then those who have opinions on the storyteller and feel the need to tell them these opinions, all through the night, perhaps with a dick pic for colour.

The lessons the storytellers learn often involve a kind of therapy and some combination of wizardry and Beyoncé, where they manage to keep a pocket of private life, which is only theirs to witness. And then something else happens to them, and they sit for a while, and then they organise the mirrors and go again.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman


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