Memoir has been maligned as navel-gazing, faux fiction, self-aggrandizement, an exercise in me-me-me. The criticism is spurious. If you’re not interested in a story, don’t read it—but if that story happened to you, if it’s lodged in your memory, then there are at least five good reasons for you to write it down.
- It’s YOUR life. You are the star of your own life story. You could even say it’s all happening for your benefit. So many of us spend our discretionary time entertained by other people’s stories. Books, movies, TV, even local gossip are all composed of other people’s stories, real or imaginary. We spend our time with these stories in order to avoid engaging with the one story we need to understand, our own. Writing memoir is a way to explore what happened in your life, and why, and what you might learn from it.
- You have a unique perspective. In one of my memoir classes, a woman in her 50s wrote about a wedding photo in which she, a young bride walking down the aisle on her father’s arm, mugs the camera with her mouth open in the shape of a perfect “O.” She wrote, “Dad had just whispered to me, ‘It’s not too late.’” The woman went through with the wedding… and, later, the divorce and, much later, a shift in gender orientation that gave her story its full piquancy—a flavor only she was in a position to truly appreciate.
- Your stories can disappear. They already have. This is one of the reasons people give for not writing memoir in the first place. They say, “How can I write about what I can’t remember?” You can’t. But you can write about what you do remember. There is a great deal that has stayed with you, and this usually involves the people, events, places that mean the most to you. Write these stories before you lose them.
- There is more to glean. “The unexamined life is not worth living.” That’s strong language. Socrates isn’t saying it’s better to contemplate than not; he’s saying that if we don’t look at our lives, we might as well not live them at all. The process of looking seems itself to be the key, because no matter how self-aware we may be, there is always more to learn.
- The focus itself is beneficial. This might mean “medicinal,” “expansive,” “meditative”…many things. I spent the last year rewriting a memoir, and during this time I noticed that I was observing my life today with greater awareness. It’s as if more of me were present because I was actively delving into parts of my past.
There are multiple reasons not to write memoir, but the main one, I think, is not knowing where to start. This you can put aside by making a list. Ask yourself what matters most to you in your life, and write down the topics, names, events one by one, as they come up. Then take one item from that list, close your eyes, and ask yourself, What do I want to say…? Start writing.