Writing a memoir, whether dark, light, funny or sad (or all of those) may be the most rewarding thing you ever do. Here’s why:
Writing a memoir is like an extended writing retreat. You withdraw for a few hours, or even a few minutes, to a private place all your own where you allow memories to carry you back to an earlier time. Over the years I worked on writing my memoir, I frequently stopped to work on other writing projects, but I always returned to the past, what I call “long ago in the here and now.”
In memoir, you rescue the past from obscurity, misunderstanding and misinterpretation (at least someone else’s misinterpretation; you’re free to create your own – this is your memoir!) You rescue the hidden structure of your life as you dig for the bones to support your narrative. You rescue your voice that may have been ignored or neglected, and your vision. Most importantly, you rescue a story that might never have been told.
In her biography of Isak Dinesen, The Life of a Storyteller, Judith Thurman calls Out of Africa a “sublime repair job” on the author’s life. By writing your memoir, you repair the past by giving structure and meaning to the raw experience of life. And pulling the elements of your story together takes you deeper into the experience. If the experience was painful, you have a chance to resolve it; if it was positive, you get to relive it. Either way, it may be a lot better – and more meaningful – the second time around.
Revising your life story isn’t about falsifying or distorting facts; it’s about perspective. An occurrence that loomed large when it unfolded may be unimportant or irrelevant to the story you are telling while another, seemingly trivial event becomes a major turning point. You, the writer get to decide what is important and what isn’t, what to draw out and what to leave out.
If only you could do this the first time around!
“If I knew then what I know now, I’d do a lot of things differently,” Peggy Sue Bodell says in the film Peggy Sue Got Married when, as an adult she goes back in time to inhabit her teenage self. But you wouldn’t write your memoir any differently because you do know then what you know now. Memoir is a vehicle for returning to an earlier time with the knowledge of how the story unfolds – to go back with perspective and wisdom. That’s the beauty of return.
We could spend our lives sleeping like cats or hunting like cougars, but we humans have the unimaginable luxury of reflecting on ourselves, our lives and our stories. We can sift through the mysteries and myths of the past to find the kernel of what we have to say, and the truth that may have eluded us. If we are fortunate, we will bring back a story that will touch and transform others as well.
Our stories provide context for our lives and connection to others. Perhaps, as we evolved, they were even critical to our survival. Telling stories by the fire or stream-side, figuring out how we fit into the community, the land, the flow of events, helped redeem us from obscurity, isolation, and randomness. Through our stories we find a home for ourselves in the world.
Memoir writing is analogous to taking an old piece of furniture and refinishing it (I happen to like distressed furniture, but that’s another issue.) What you’re highlighting in the story is the theme, the heart of what you have come to say. Hopefully you can make it shine.
An untold story is a painful one for a writer. Writing a memoir, working to find the theme and hone the narrative, changes the rough, unfinished quality of life by giving it definition, form and resolution. The act of shaping a narrative, whether one as lush as an English cottage garden or as bare as an empty city lot, puts you and your “characters” in context and gives your story closure, as my therapist friend, Vivian, likes to say.
Some of the most heartfelt comments I’ve gotten from my recently-completed memoir as I “test drove” the manuscript came from friends who showed it to friends, from people I hardly knew. That definitely counts as a reward – finding new readers, discovering your audience. And in writing your memoir you also discover yourself and your story.
And that’s the ultimate reward.
A version of this piece was posted on womensmemoirs