In the weeks since the publication of Prince Harry’s tell-all book Spare, the art, ethics and cost of memoir have been much-discussed. Confessional writing has long been a source of conflicted fascination for me. As a reader, I consume it avidly, but with a contempt for my own voyeurism.

As a writer, too, I am torn. Sometimes, personal stories batter themselves against my skull, begging to be let out. But then I consider my motivations and the possible repercussions, and it all begins to feel like too much of a risk.

Janet Malcolm’s newly and posthumously-published book, Still Pictures, addresses some of my ambivalence. Her most caustic observation comes in the chapter titled Daddy after she has shared a handful of “plotless memories” of her father. “The memories with a plot are the ones that commit the original sin of autobiography,” she continues.

“They are the memories of conflict, resentment, blame, self-justification – and it is wrong, unfair, inexcusable to publish them. ‘Who asked you to tarnish my image with your miserable little hurts?’, the dead person might reasonably ask.”

Read more from Dani Garavelli in The Herald

Malcolm is one of my favourite writers. Critiquing every aspect of the reporter’s craft, she is the overthinker’s overthinker. Reading her is a compelling but often uncomfortable experience. Her most frequently quoted line is: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

In Still Pictures, she admits to not always listening to interviewees’ answers to her questions and asks whether, for most of us, “the word ‘empathy’ refers to a performance rather than a feeling”.

A friend recently told me she was advised not to read any of Malcolm’s work before embarking on a major, ethically-fraught project, and I understood why. Dwelling too long on the notion of “performed empathy” could be creatively paralysing – it could stop you writing anything at all.

Overthinking never stunted Malcolm’s creativity. Rather, it became her USP. Wary of biography, she wrote The Silent Woman, a book that affects to be an attack on the “busybodyism” of those who have made an industry of the posthumous picking apart of Sylvia Plath, but offers its own insights into her character. In Still Pictures, she attempts to avoid “the original sin of autobiography” by structuring the book around a series of old photographs.


And yet, it could be argued that when it comes to her mother, she is more than willing to exorcise her own “miserable little hurts”. In two separate chapters, she casts her as emotionally needy, always pressurising her daughter for more overt expressions of love. Malcolm castigates herself – but she castigates her mother more.

Another of my favourite writers, Blake Morrison, also has a memoir out soon. Unlike Malcolm, Morrison is at the “everything is copy” end of the personal writing spectrum. In When Did You Last See Your Father? he portrays his dad as a philandering bully. In Things My Mother Never Told Me he reveals the hidden past of a woman who went from a wartime doctor to a conventional 1950s wife and mother. So free is Morrison with his family’s secrets that John Crace’s Digested Read on Things My Mother Never Told Me ended: “Attention all Morrisons.

“If you value your privacy don’t even think of dying before Blake.” This advice was wilfully ignored by his two sisters (one full, one half – the product of his father’s affair with a family friend) – whose lives both ended tragically. And so, now, somewhat predictably, Morrison has written the last of his trilogy: Two Sisters.

Two Sisters is not out yet, but, in an extract in The Guardian, he tackles previous criticism head-on. The purpose of his memoir, he says, is to understand why his sisters died “self-destructively before their time” and to confront the horrors of addiction. “I don’t want to rob [Gill, Morrison’s full sister] of dignity,” he writes. “But when she drank she had no dignity. I’m on a mission here … to demythologise the romance of heavy drinking.” And “yes, up to a point, Blake Morrison”, I find myself mentally answering. “But who gets to judge whether the end justifies the means? Who decides if the robbing of your sister’s dignity is a fair trade for the furthering of public understanding?” His readers will be the ultimate arbiters. But it’s a bit too late if they find that it’s not.

The Herald:

As a feature writer/columnist, I have written about my father, my mother, my husband, my sons, and my brother. Writing about my father’s death was a compulsion for reasons that remain obscure, even to me. About those who are still alive, I have withheld more than I have revealed. But I am as sceptical about my own objectivity as I am of other people’s. The most we can do is to present our version of the truth. Other versions will always be available.

Joan Didion famously wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live ... we interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.” For “most workable”, you could substitute “most palatable”.

With the best will in the world, how can our interpretation of our own lives be anything other than self-serving?

In Two Sisters, Morrison hints at an alternative motive: “self-exoneration.” Or, to put it another way: sometimes, we tell ourselves stories in order to live with what we have done (or with what we have failed to do).

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I’m being too harsh. Many memoirists are driven by a need to process trauma, to expose wrongdoing, or to come to terms with their own identities. The person who suffers most in the reliving of those painful events is themselves.

Last week, a piece in The Bookseller asked if enough was being done to support those confronting their own pasts. This prompted Terri White, author of Coming Undone, to explain what writing about poverty, self-harm, abuse and being sectioned in a New York psychiatric ward had cost her.

It was, she said, not only the excavation of buried memories that was retraumatising, but other people’s responses to it, such as the man who posted “Another one with daddy issues” on Facebook.

“Once it [the memoir] is out there, there’s no withdrawing it,” she wrote. “There is no erasure of what is now known. And truthfully, upon contact with the world, it becomes something else entirely, something that no longer belongs to you.”

The Herald:

Still conflicted, I sought the views of a couple of Scottish memoirists. Ali Millar (pictured above, in black and white), whose book The Last Days recounts her experience of growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, shares much of White’s angst. The memories she excavates include anorexia and being interrogated in her own home about her sex life. When she finally left, she was cut off by her mother.

Millar told me the decision to write about her life was not an easy one. “I knew I had this story that I needed to get out of me before I could move on to anything else,” she said.

“But at the same time, I didn’t want to write it because I knew I couldn’t write it without writing about my mum, and I genuinely didn’t want to write about my mum. In the end, I had to weigh up the harm the book could do versus the good the book could do. Of course, I would hate to be in my mum’s situation, and that’s something I have to live with. I did something which could be construed as hurtful, but at the same time it helped so many others.”

For Millar, writing The Last Days was far from cathartic. “It made me really ill. I had panic attacks and I was sick,” she said. “But I do feel more settled, now, and a bit more like my past is integrated.”

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It is 10 years since Damian Barr finished Maggie And Me, “a memoir of deprivation and survival” set in the shadow of Ravenscraig. “It took seven years to write,” he told me, “and a large part of that was not sitting at my desk trying to perfect sentences, it was thinking: ‘Can I do this? Should I do this?’. All I could hear was my granny saying: ‘Don’t wash your dirty linen in public’ and the men in my life, who had hurt me, saying: ‘You better not tell.’

“Added to that was the fear and shame I felt on realising I was gay. There were all these inbuilt barriers to me accessing myself.”

Maggie And Me also explores the suicide of Barr’s friend. “I wanted to understand why he had made that choice,” he said. “It was also a chance for me to bring him back or to memorialise him. And when I understood that, I thought I can do this for others, too, and for Ravenscraig.”

Their words resonate. Some days, I think the only way to silence the voices in my head to make sense of my own experiences is to give them narrative form; to offer them up for public consumption. Other days, I cannot contemplate the potential fallout.

I guess that’s what it comes down to: a calculation of profit and loss, of how much emotional upheaval you think you and other people can withstand. And there’s always the thorny question of motive. What would I be trying to achieve? Self-care? Self-harm? Self-exoneration? Self-aggrandisement?

There I go, overthinking things again. I blame Janet Malcolm. But then, this is my take. I can blame whosoever I choose.