The Writer-on-Writer Memoir

By Thomas Larson

March 15, 2022

The Writer-on-Writer Memoir

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

Emerging in the midlife of the ongoing memoir explosion is what is variously called the bibliomemoir, the memoir/biography, or the writer-on-writer memoir. I like all three but the third type comes, I think, closest to a book that engages with a writer of central importance in one’s personal life and who deserves a paean of sorts to say and show how and why. It’s a book that ostensibly is about the other author, often borne out via the title—My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, referring, of course, to George Eliot’s masterpiece: note the my—but it really should cover one’s shared experience via the (usually) dead author’s work and a profound self-discovery that experience has hailed. “I could not have known myself fully without having read X.” I’m intrigued by these books, one, in particular, from 2020, My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland.

Shapland sees in McCullers’s long reluctance to privately come out (and mostly stay hidden) as a lesbian aside her early literary success, a failed marriage to a gay man, and a series of unacted-upon love affairs. Shapland tells us she shares some of McCullers’s inner journey toward her own sexual expression; indeed, her coming out has been more welcomed, though still bumpy, and now quite public with this memoir. Her fragmentally-told book plows a two-women-made-for-each-other plot—my life lived already in yours. Writers “are the shards of others,” she writes, that is, we descend from and join into a sisterhood or brotherhood of shared initiations via the act of deep reading.

To prove she’s handled the shards, Shapland calls upon her recent years as an archivist at the vast Harry Ransom Archive in Austin. There, she studied a trove of McCullers’s belongings, artifacts seldom riffled by biographers—manuscripts, copyright guarded love letters, tapes and transcripts of psychiatric sessions, even items of her clothing, “a kind of hinge or portal to the author’s body.”

Reading McCullers’s biographers, Shapland decides they’ve failed to discuss the author’s confused lesbianism, instead, concentrating on the suggestively gay and tragic characters in the Southerner’s fiction of the 1940s and 1950s: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter appeared when McCullers was 23, Reflections in a Golden Eye at 24. Her emotional confusion is a blueprint for Shapland to examine hers as a thirtyish author and lesbian herself. This literary-ish link between fellow travelers allows Shapland to write a sexually attuned portrait of the beloved author who also wrote The Member of the Wedding, novella and play, and the dismal Clock Without Hands (according to Flannery O’Connor), and who died at 50.

Shapland insists on exploring the erasure of their sexuality, whether in the family or society, with particular emphasis on McCullers’s decentered homosexuality in previous appraisals. The unconsummated love affair with her psychiatrist sheds the brightest light on McCullers, a story which the letters and tapes do tell. By contrast, Shapland comes out at similar attractions to McCullers during her teens and twenties, dramatizing coequal scenes of love and anguish the older author seldom admitted to and Shapland is eager to share.

Like Geoff Dyer’s self-spadework in Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence (1997), Shapland succeeds at times because she’s decisive about her ambivalent role as memoirist and biographer. She cites Elizabeth McCracken who also fell under McCullers’s spell. Writing of the license such disinterment of another’s secrets brings up, both women agree that “feeling understood by someone does not equate with understanding them.”

At times, Shapland seems beholden to her subject’s privacy; other times, she writes avidly about McCullers’s clandestine, archaic love/worship of women. Then, as if she’s being ignored at a dinner party, Shapland gives full-throated longing for her partner, Chelsea, apart as they are while she writes this book.

In another sense, the writer-on-writer memoir is a way to make the past present—I know what you’re going through because as you did I’m going through it now. Sounds juvenile in that mere identification is somehow worthy of coverage. But maybe that’s the consequence of loving our literary heroes. Sometimes an anecdote about McCullers’s stunted amorousness makes Shapland think of her and Chelsea’s more expressive bond; other times, she forces herself onto the stage, burnishing her accountability, reminding us that she’s on the sidelines, waiting her turn as the understudy. It’s as if McCullers, the “intended,” can’t keep her stifled and sullen romantic feelings free from Shapland’s prying.

Obsessions, of the speculative kind, occupy the memoir: Did Carson and her therapist-pursuer, Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, actually “do it”? Hard to say. The evidence is highly suggestive, but inconclusive, a fallacy literary sleuthing is poorly equipped to answer. Not quite a genuine mystery, rather a TMZ video that doesn’t exist, no matter how much Shapland speculates it should. This search yields more than one dramatic in-the-midst-of-research moment:

I put the pages down with an audible, exasperated sigh and suddenly came back into the small Columbus [Georgia] reading room. For the first time in hours I looked up from my round table covered in stacks of folders at the other researchers—pairs of sisters or cousins all trying to find out their genealogical histories—and I began to question my research impulses. I’d found the love letters four years ago. I recognized what I read. What more proof did I think I needed? What was I trying to prove? Historians demand proof from queer love stories that they never require of straight relationships. Unless someone was in the room when the two women had sex (and just what “sex” means between women is, for many historians, up for debate), there’s just no reason to include in the historical record that they were lesbians. At least that’s what it seems like to me.

There is, with the putative chumminess the later writer projects on the earlier one, a sense of cabal: even in her confusion, McCullers chose not to swing the closet door open and left so much of her life unexamined. But via Shapland is here to examine its every cranny. Does she find a smoking gun? It’s not clear. (Strictures in McCullers’s estate forbid quoting directly from certain manuscripts.) But, note, this is also to say that the very hiddenness practiced by pre-millennial biographers of putative lesbianism is not only true in the writing of certain women but has to be sussed out from their behaviors: McCullers was so buried in her insecurities, Shapland concludes, that despite her desires for several women, she could neither act on them nor acknowledge her refusal to do so. That evaluation saddens a sorrowful life, wasted on marrying the same man twice, and despite her ongoing literary value.

There’s also a kind of a memoiristic #MeToo at work here: McCullers’s first affair parallels Shapland; so does their first times at Yaddo, their sexual feelings suspicioned and stifled by family, boyfriends, marriageable men, and their growing androgyny. (With Shapland, it seems everyone she names, historical or present-day, is gay or a little bit gay.) There are prerequisites for the pilgrimage to an iconic author, one of which is to emphasize one’s stickiness to another co-suffering writer, something our Age of Identity intensifies. Because we share this one Huge commonality, you the older artist must be a model for my art and, thus, the key to my categorical being. Note the adjective: not my quixotic self but the me I’m supposed to be.

Contrarily, I find value in this memoir subgenre not for its revelations but for its daring honesty, an aid to self-disclosure and the interior world. Moreover, the writer-on-writer memoir is a soft attack on the obsessively objective biography whose author possesses (is possessed by) an inordinate passion for his subject, that is, if he’s going to live with the person he’s exposing, for example, as Carl Sandburg did, barely making ends meet while writing his homespun paean to Lincoln over some seventeen years. Such devotion can neither be disguised nor tossed off; it must be self-sustaining because it’ll never be lucrative. Unlike the commercial novel or nonfiction narrative. Traditional biography is a peeping-Tom form whose rewards are vicarious eminence.

Still, I do like the savvy of this new form: what so interests one writer about another involves researching, mulling, and celebrating the other’s gift should lead to a personal discovery just as profound as the literary work that drew one in initially. At least, that’s the hope. If you reread this statement, you’ll see it’s not very different than the task all memoirists face: Find something of ourselves in relationship to this lone subject we’ve chosen to unravel from direct experience. Why shouldn’t our reading life be as fundamentally relational as, say, a mother-daughter memoir?

The memoir track—if the publisher demands it be “based on a true story”—typically calls for a lot more drama than a literary devotee’s enthrallment. This tell-all temerity occurs in Shapland’s book as more juicy chatter than memoiristic reflection, a flaw of the prurient marketplace. But still the biography of McCullers’s sexual repression, by her and by those of her confidantes, is the most gripping and original element here. For that I’m thankful. Well into the twenty-first century, some writers and most readers are exhausted by the bildungsroman of domestic violence, cancer death, an affair’s obsessive end, even spiritual trauma. Devotional love with or without sex sounds like a sweet offramp after ten thousand miles of memories of childhood sexual abuse.

My Autobiography of Carson McCullers by Jenn Shapland

Tin House
 $22.95 Hardcover | Buy Now


LarsonJournalist, book/music critic, and memoirist Thomas Larson's most recent book is Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry (Swallow Press). He has also written The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease (Hudson Whitman), The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio for Strings’ (Pegasus Press), and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative (Swallow Press). He is a twenty-year staff writer for the San Diego Reader, a six-year book review editor for River Teeth, and a former music critic for the Santa Fe New Mexican.






Keywords: book review
« Back to Articles

Newsletter Sign Up

shadow shadow