Content warning: sexual abuse, eating disorders, gun violence, suicide. Creating a memoir isn’t an easy task—the writer is expected to bare their soul about a troubled or anxious time in their lives. But these personal stories can transform the reader and give them the kinship or answers they’ve been looking for—especially if they’re created by marginalised writers. So, how does one write a memoir and how do you deconstruct your life enough to create a story? Maia Kobabe, Katie Green, and Joel Christian Gill shared their experiences during the Personal Stories in Graphic Novels ComicCon@Home panel.
Katie Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow is about her personal journey through eating disorders and sexual abuse. Since she couldn’t find any stories about the events in her life, she decided to write one for herself.
Joel Christian Gill wrote Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence because he wanted to show the world that people aren’t defined by the place they come from, and the violence they suffer there. Gill is also a survivor of child sexual abuse and wanted to talk about his story because he feels that Black men aren’t allowed to talk about their trauma with sensitivity.
Maia Kobabe (who uses e/em/eir pronouns) wrote Gender Queer: A Memoir, er first graphic novel, because the people around er couldn’t seem to understand what e was talk about when e discussed er identity. So, e put it all down in this memoir.
I recently read Kobabe’s memoir and it was beautifully written and drawn (by er sister) but was also quite a difficult read at times because of how painful er’s struggle with identity was. I could easily see why the memoir was necessary—nobody around Kobabe understood why e was questioning eir gender, even though they all deeply cared about er.
This same confusion manifested very differently for Gill. There was one mugging near where he was teaching, and the entire faculty was up in arms about it; what shocked them the most though was learning that Gill had had a gun pulled on him multiple times when he was younger. He knew inherently that others didn’t have the same experiences as him, but to see such strong reactions made him realise that his story needed to be told.
Gill also shared a touching anecdote about the creation of his book. While speaking to his son, he realised that, at 18, the boy had never been in a fight. Gill’s first instinct was to immediately think of what fighting techniques he should be teaching his son. He didn’t pursue the thought further though because he realised everything he’s done in his life is to ensure that his children never have to fight the way he had to.
Gill’s stories about navigating violence as a teenager were tough to hear—but his openness, his strength, and his motivation powered the discussions forward.
This panel was extremely heavy to begin with, but it steadily got more so. Green talking about what propelled her to write her memoir was probably the hardest to hear. Her mental illness had her at such a low point that she seriously contemplated suicide. It was the hope of writing her memoir that got her through it. “I had to get through this so I could write a book about how I got through this,” said Green.
While the process of writing a personal story seems to have been transformative for the authors on this panel, Green did mention that, shortly following the book’s publication in the UK, she had a breakdown and was ill for a few years after. She made an interesting point about how a book looks complete to a reader—even one that explores a personal story and has an open ending—but it’s not a real reflection of life. A memoir has an end, but a life continues after the final page, and that life isn’t always a bed of roses.
Both Gill and Green made astute observations about meeting people after their memoirs had been published. There’s always this impression that they’ve “made it” because they successfully created a book and that they are now this “finished article” because they had, in essence, exorcised their demons through their novels.
Of course, neither of those are true—one book, or in Gill’s case, several books, does not mean that they don’t need to keep working on themselves and creating more stories. Nor does it mean that they’ve closed the chapter on the difficulties of their past—they’re still constantly working through them.
And even the creation of the memoirs was a process of discovery for the authors. When the protagonist is oneself, how do you take an objective stance? Gill spoke about mentally removing himself from the process—he would refer to himself in the third person so that he could write it, because otherwise he would just end up crying remembering everything he had been through.
Green’s editor was a huge help to her when writing the book—he asked her very “straight, white, male” questions about the events and emotions in the book which she was too close to. Through their discussions, Green’s visual language became stronger and sharper and was better able to convey the quiet, inner moments that powered the narrative.
Kobabe was great at lifting the mood with er humorous stories about er creation process, which wasn’t linear but gave er and the people who had been connected to er before a way to explore their own gender identities. I particularly liked how er coming out process was driven by the narrative needs of er book—that was a good moment of levity that I think this panel needed.
Kobabe talked about how e was able to rely on journals that e had meticulously kept for years—re-reading them to write the memoir was often quite painful, but it helped er realise that the world-ending shame e used to feel had eventually faded away. The outline of the memoir ended up being everything in er journals that e thought e could never admit to another person.
But Kobabe also noted that when one is writing a memoir, you have permission to exclude elements—it’s not an autobiography where everything in your life is expected to be retold. The memoir is very focused on an aspect of the author’s life, or a period, or a certain event.
With such intense topics being discussed, I was glad to see that Shawna Gore, a senior editor at Oni Press and the moderator for the panel, remained unflappable. It could not have been easy to field such difficult personal stories, but she managed to create an environment that was comfortable enough for the speakers to share their journeys.
Despite the heavy subject matter of the panel, none of the speakers got bogged down by the troubled histories they were exploring—they embraced their unique journeys, were understanding and empathetic towards each other, and shared some valuable insights into the process of creating a memoir.
Having said that, I did have to take breaks while watching this, which is probably one of the perks of attending a convention from home. But if you are watching this panel, you might want to do the same, or queue up something a bit lighter straight after.