What’s So Awful about Navel-gazing?

People who read my memoir often want to know whether I’m healed. 

This question always terrifies me. I didn’t know I needed to be healed, but leaving that aside for the moment, it’s still a question that stymies me: “After writing X, did you feel healed?”

It’s an innocent enough question, and I’m not trying to be critical of the journalists and ordinary people (those pesky ordinary people!) who ask this question repeatedly. And I suppose I should take it as a compliment that anyone would care whether I’m healed, but the problem is that there’s no simple answer. I suppose it depends what your intention is for writing: To me, healing suggests something permanent. Something gets better. But in my experience, there’s no permanence in life. You write something, and perhaps it moves a reader and you, as well. But does it heal you? There’s a literal-mindedness to the question, which plays into the hands of those who would call memoirists “navel-gazers.”

The question makes me want to question the questioner: Must I be healed? Is that a requirement? If I haven’t been healed, does that mean I’ve failed to write a good book? I’m afraid that some people (readers, writers, editors, talk show hosts, film makers, soft ball players) might answer, We expect redemption. We expect results! We expect that after you share your awful secrets, you will, at the very least, begin the healing process.

But is this what literature does? Shouldn’t literature leave healing to the therapists? I never read, say, Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” to be healed or redeemed. In her famous story, a family from Atlanta takes a drive and winds up murdered by an insane escaped convict by the name of The Misfit. Everyone in the family other than the cat, Pitty Sing, dies. And yet, as those who have read the story know, it’s precisely about redemption. OK, it’s elegant redemption; it’s not spill-your-guts-and-win-an-Oscar redemption. Although there is literal gut-spilling in the deaths of O’Connor’s characters, you never see it. It happens off-stage, in the woods of a lonely country road, to be precise, and you must use your imagination to picture the results of that far away gunshot. Famously, the Misfit, after shooting the selfish grandmother in the story, remarks, “She’d a been a good woman if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life.” She’s redeemed in the story in a moment of grace (of the Christian variety), in which she loses her selfishness for presumably the only time in her life. But was Flannery O’Connor healed by writing the story? 

As a memoir writer, I’m the grandmother, the Misfit and Flannery O’Connor all rolled into one. I’m writing about myself, yes, but writing about a younger self most often, trying to make sense of my selfishness, my craziness and heartlessness armed, as Bernard Cooper states, with “the luminous power of words.” When someone asks if I’m healed, I want to answer, “I’d be healed if I wrote a memoir every minute of my life.” In my experience, healing is as fleeting as “goodness.”

About the Author

Robin Hemley

Robin Hemley is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction and the winner of a number of awards including two Pushcart Prizes, the Nelson Algren Award, the George Garrett Award, and the Independent Press Books Award.

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