Why write memoir?
Updated: Jan 8, 2019
Everyone knows that real writers write novels, and not just any novels — the Great American Novel. or maybe, an epic thriller, or, at the very least, a murder mystery. Saying you write memoir is like saying you only eat grasshoppers.
I know because I’ve been there. People cock their heads and either don’t say anything or they mumble, “huh?” Rarely, do people respond as if they know what I’m talking about, and rarer still do they ask me any questions about it. Maybe it’s because the French name for true stories about one’s life sounds too “exotique.” People try to pronounce it as if they’re speaking French—mémoire—which often looks like they’re throwing someone a kiss while they toss a faux fox fur stole over their shoulder.
According to Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature, editor Meredith Moran writes:
People who love memoirs claim that the telling of the true-life story is the contemporary incantation of oral history, an invaluable contribution to the enlightenment, the collective consciousness, perhaps even the evolution of the species.
People who don’t love memoirs say the genre is a scourge upon the human race, a playing field upon which attention-craving, sensationalistic, crass, and craven narcissists head-butt and navel-gaze their way to the bestseller lists.
I fall squarely into the first camp. I believe a written record of one’s experiences and reflections on those experiences is invaluable to our enlightenment, collective consciousness, AND evolution of the species. Where would we be without storytelling, oral history, and the writings of those who have gone before? It is through learning about what others went through that we understand how we’ve grown, where we’ve fallen short, and how we, as a species, go forward into the future.
A visit to another nation within our nation
Recently, I visited the Citizen Potawatomie Cultural Heritage Center in Shawnee, Oklahoma. In the museum, I was reminded of the Seven Fires Prophecy, something I first learned about from the Ojibwe people of Northern Michigan. This prophecy is the history of the Anishinaabe, but it is so much more than that. It contains the hopes, dreams, struggles, and fears of a people who have moved from the East Coast of Canada through the Great Lakes, down to Kansas, and ultimately to Indian Country in Oklahoma.
In the first three prophecies, the people move voluntarily to the land of present-day Michigan and Wisconsin where “food grows on water.” However, by the fourth prophecy, things start going badly. According to the fourth prophecy,
“The future of the Anishinabeg would be known by the face the light-skinned people would wear. If they come in brotherhood there would be a time of wonderful change. New knowledge would be joined with the old knowledge and the two peoples would join to make a mighty nation. Two other nations would join to make four and they would become the mightiest nation of all. If they brought only their knowledge and their good-will they would be like brothers.”
We know how that turned out. The fifth and sixth prophecies speak of struggle, false promises, and forced removal to the place the people now occupy, far away from the land where “food grew on water.”
The seventh prophecy has yet to be fulfilled, but the people are working hard to bring it to fruition.
By the light of the Seventh Fire come the Ogichidaag', those who would use their power and strength with wisdom and gentleness to bring harmony and balance. They will soar with wabishkie ginu', the White Eagle, bringing the wisdom of Spirit with the first light of day. They will learn of their power and strength like the gidzhii makwa' the Great Bear who holds ice and snow in the North so the Earth would not be covered with water. And they will open their mind and heart like makinaak' the turtle who offered his back upon which to build a new earth.
Memoir as a form of storytelling
Although memoir as a form of storytelling differs from the oral tradition of the Seven Fires Prophecy, I believe it has similar impact. Memoir reminds us from where we’ve come; it shows us what we have in common; it offers warnings about the implications of how we interact with others; and it offers hope in moments of despair. Furthermore, memoir provides future generations with a record of the obstacles we overcome and, if they take it to heart, the tools to not repeat the same mistakes.
When a writer uses memoir to examine their experiences with integrity and depth, they may find that they can forgive themselves for their mistakes and honor the journey that has brought them to who they are. Pearl Cleage, author of Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons & Love Affairs, says it well, “I’m not perfect, but I’m free, I’m happy, I’m a good person. So I get to say, “Live your messy life! Be bold! Be strong! Be truthful and don’t bore yourself to death,”
Memoir is not perfect
As a form, memoir has been abused by some. It’s as fallible as the writers who write it. Some people who write memoir fabricate their experiences. We saw this play out on the Oprah Winfrey Show when she threw James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, out of the Oprah Book Club for writing fiction and calling it memoir. But Frey is the exception to the rule.
What happens more often than lying about one’s past is the inability of the writer to delve deeply enough into their lives to find meaning in their experiences. Memoir relies on honesty. Memoirist Kate Christensen, author of Blue Plate Special, writes “Don’t be afraid of writing into the heart of what you’re most afraid of. The story of a life lives in what you would rather not admit or say.”
This is what I most struggle with when I write memoir. I can pontificate (my father’s favorite word) about all kinds of things and all kinds of people but putting myself on the page, interrogating my own truth is the hardest writing I do.
Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail, writes, “Art isn’t anecdote, it’s the consciousness we bring to bear on the stories we tell.”
As part of the RVing Women National Convention, I taught a workshop called “Writing Meaning into Memories.” In that workshop, I shared this struggle and how for me, consciousness deepens with each edit. I first write the story and then, like digging through Virginia clay, I chip away at what it means, why it’s important, and what I’ve learned from the experience. The deeper I allow myself to go, the more honest I am on the page, the more my own voice comes through, and the more relatable my writing becomes. At least, that’s my hope.
Anne Lamott, author of multiple memoirs, including Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, a book considered a bible for memoirists, speaks to this, “People think my memoirs are very easy to write because I do sound like I talk. They don’t know it takes me five drafts for it to sound that way. But more than fifteen books later, I still struggle with the same feelings of self-worth, the same fear of failure, the same fears that I won’t be able to pull it off, that the well is running dry.”
If Anne Lamott struggles with these fears, then I feel more comfortable expressing mine. That’s what good memoir does. It gives permission for us to feel the way we do because we know we’re not alone in those feelings. And it gives us ideas about how to move through them.
Our stories are essential
Just like the Seven Fires Prophecy are to the Anishinaabe, stories about our lives are essential to our future. Memoir connects us with each other in ways that fiction cannot. It helps us navigate around the road blocks life puts in front of us and illuminates the road we travel.
Although I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I can’t convince everyone to love memoir the way I do, I will not be discouraged from reading and writing it. I hope you consider writing your stories and sharing them with the rest of us. I need the wisdom, prophecy, and hope they bring me. And I believe we all do.