By Melissa Walsh
“Writers are the custodians of memory,” says William Zinsser in his book On Writing Well, a guide for writing nonfiction. Memoir is recorded memory that is only yours to share. If not recorded, the memory dies with you; memoir is legacy.
Your Time Machine
Think back to a period of your life that was significant in adding wisdom into your thinking, forming a song in your soul, and leaving a cry in your heart. Recall the moments that tested, revealed, and impacted your character and altered the way you perceive yourself and others and their circumstances.
With memoir, you hit rewind on your life and go back in time; then you hit “stop” and present to an audience, ”Look here. Let me show you what happened and how it impacted me.”
Did this period demand courage, faith, and perseverance? Were you knocked down? Tripped up? Did you fall into a well? Leap off a cliff? Did you dive head-first into a stormy sea? Or were you blind-sided and pushed overboard?
Did you rise?
With memoir, you can show (not tell) readers where you once were and how you rose. You’ll present who you were and are.
This is uniquely your story; only you can tell it. And until you do, your story remains unknown to many and misunderstood by the rest.
“Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance,” Zinsser teaches in the chapter “Writing Family History and Memoir.”
Though book retailers like Amazon.com group biography and memoir together in a single category, publishers consider these separate genres. Autobiography chronologically presents the author’s life from birth to present. Memoir delves into a particular aspect or event of the author’s life, usually a challenging or tragic period that the author had to overcome and grow from emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually. Yet memoir is not about the situation, challenge, or tragedy itself, rather about how events and people related to that situation, challenge, or tragedy impacted the author.
Writing memoir requires discipline and devotion. It may be unpleasant. The self-examination required in writing memoir detoxifies the soul the way a cleanse regimen of healthy foods detoxifies the body. The author of a memoir requires a higher dosage of long walks and sitting quietly. There might be increased therapy and one-on-one chat sessions with old trusted friends. For believers, prayer time ramps up while undertaking memoir writing.
“Think small,” is Zinsser’s advice in beginning your memoir. “Tackle your life in manageable chunks.”
So to begin your memoir, you reflect. You jot down a few notes and draft an outline that may evolve into your table of contents. You dust off your old journals. You read. You weep. You laugh. You sigh. You take a deep breath and decide where to begin in presenting your experience and how it shaped your character and refined your soul.
Writing memoir demands revisiting the pain, anxiety, and despair of a difficult period or series of events in the author’s life. Paradoxically, as the author processes and writes about these memories, he or she also recalls and reveals nearly forgotten joys and pleasant discoveries of the human spirit. The author revisits the dark times of life with the flashlight of hindsight, noticing perhaps for the first time hidden treasures of sparkle that can only be seen by shining light onto dark.
“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious,” wrote Carl Jung (in “The Philosophical Tree,” Alchemical Studies).
What do people associate with darkness of life? For some it is loss. For others doubt. It may be fear or loneliness. It might be surviving abuse. What becomes their light? And how do they find it? Memoir brings readers stories that invite them into life's questions and the search for answers. Memoir also entertains, because true life is wilder than fiction.
“No one’s list is exactly like anyone else’s," says Barbara Brown Tayler in Learning to Walk in the Dark. “It fits the way a shadow fits, because darkness is sticky. It attracts meaning like a magnet, picking up everything in its vicinity that is not fully lit.”
And this is what outstanding memoir achieves. Consider distinguished memoirs like Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each author revisits, collects, and reveals his or her greatest loves and heartaches, hopes and disappointments, joys and sorrows. Each offers readers insight and perspective into misunderstood community and compassion for little-known lives.
“When I stopped trying to block my sadness and let it move me instead,” says Taylor, “it led me to a bridge with people on the other side. Every one of them knew sorrow.” Memoir is a person achieving significant understanding and connecting it to readers wanting to complete their understanding.
Living a full human life includes experiencing a dark period of the soul. For those who demonstrate wisdom beyond their years, that darkness came in their youth. For others, the soul is severely tested in the dark at middle age or later. The darkness descends and overwhelms in different ways. It may be while mourning a death, surviving abuse, or being forced with a decision at a crossroads of intersecting unknowns. Each person’s dark place is theirs to own. The only way to move from it is to move through it. In that journey of moving through it, the soul seeks sources of light and stumbles upon objects reflecting light. Discovered light illuminates the soul’s perspective, generating warmth of compassion, energy of insight, and momentum of will.
For the writer’s soul, the best way to make sense of the darkness of night is to present its impact in the daylight of writing memoir, which done well becomes a ray of hope and a recorded legacy of how we rise.
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