True Memoir: When the Writer Gives You a Gift

And I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don't be afraid. I admire the thoughtful columns of Meghan Daum. Recently she drew an interesting distinction between what writers put into a memoir–stating that it should be an honest report on a life and not a confession. She stated that some writers of memoir treat the form without respect.

“They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession.” —Salon, January 2013

To simplify, Daum believes

  • a memoir that reads like a confession is asking the reader for something;
  • a memoir that is an honest relating of one’s life is a generous gift, a sharing of a life so the reader will feel less alone.

When I read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion, I was transported. Didion worked through the loss of her husband in that book–but she wasn’t asking me to weep for her, she was offering the gift of shared human experience. From her book I wrote my piece THE DAY OF MAGICAL THINKING. I then read her next book, BLUE NIGHTS, about her daughter’s illness and death. I cherish both of these honest and endearing works. Didion from The Year of Magical Thinking:

We all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. 

So true, and yes lately–we have been reading a great deal about shock and awe on Elm Street. FOR A CHANGE– I’d like to focus on stories that are shockingly wonderful. Stories of success and happiness–because they can happen just as fast as sorrowful events. We all need to work harder at focussing on the positive.

  • So Meghan Daum has a point: let’s focus on those people in our lives who are walking memoirs, the ones who share their lives and their stories with us and give us some joy.
  • They don’t harangue us with negatives, tear down the way we live; they aren’t constantly begging us for attention and complaining about their lot. We do not need their ugly negative thoughts.

Didion was deeply hurting in both of her books; she was in sorrow over the loss of her husband and daughter. But she gave of herself with openness and shared with her readers the JOY of her life, the WONDER of those precious relationships and the POSITIVES of the human experience.

Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? It’s more than a diary. It should really be the awakening of memory and the sharing of your soul. When you search Amazon for books on how to write a memoir, there are many to choose from. But this one stands out. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, writes about memory itself:

Memory is a pinball in a machine–it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken the moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk–how did so much fit into such a small space?

I’m no Meghan Daum or Joan Didion, but I did write a memoir over 15 years ago, that like other work I have done is filed in a cabinet. I searched that work today, found a passage that might qualify as GIVING you something–I am certainly not asking for forgiveness or confessing a sin. This goes back to my childhood. I am trying to remember it. Did the clowns spill out of the car trunk?

My mother gives us a record with the story of the PIED PIPER of HAMLIN. I play this over and over. It is a strange story about a town infested with rats, about a piper who can rid the town of these pests, and then, because he is not properly paid for his deed, plays his pipe once more, coaxing the children to follow him out of the town along a winding road, over a hill and eventually into a long tunnel. It leads to a place where the honey bees have lost their sting. This last detail I always remember. It seems to linger with me, the tunnel, the honey bees that don’t sting. I keep picturing all the children in line in the darkness and then emerging into the light at the other end. There are flowers and trees and the warmth of sunshine and these marvelous bees. 

Sometimes, when I lie awake and the hall light is off, I worry that I’ll hear that strange alluring music, that I will disappear into that tunnel. It is in the dark of that bedroom that I discover how dry my lips can get, the existence of uneven spaces between my teeth, the clutching pain of stomach cramps before vomiting. It is the darkness of that room that sheds on me the light of discovery. 

P.S. I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don’t be afraid. 


18 thoughts on “True Memoir: When the Writer Gives You a Gift

  1. Very powerful! Although Joan’s books are beautifully written I was overwhelmed with her sorrow, her loss, to really enjoy them. I appreciated them but found them too heavy and depressing for me.

    • I think I read her books at the time when life was good and I could accept what she was offering. Then two friends died, one from suicide and one from cancer. I think you are right, that you can appreciate her work but have to read it in a context that works for you.

  2. The clowns coming out of the circus car struck a chord with me. As I’m close to finished with the first draft of my memoir I remember other stories that relate to chapters I thought were written and have to rewrite them. The clowns keep coming out!

    • That’s awesome. When I looked over my memoir, I couldn’t believe all the things I had remembered and while reading it now, had forgotten. So I’m glad I did it when I did. Now to see if I can get it to all hang together. Months of work.

    • I actually have used some of my pain in my novels. They aren’t published yet LOL, but it helps to deal with life. And I know what you mean about putting your name on a memoir. Take care.

    • Yes, layers. Like all good writing. I kept diaries and when I look at them it’s like REALLY, that was what you were worried about?? Thanks.

  3. Dear Beth, Striving to keep the positive despite what life’s challenges bring is a process for me that always reminds me I survived all of this by the grace of God. Not always apparent in the moment when struggles, pain and negativity overwhelm, yet when I look back I see the courage I had and didn’t know it. I have to allow the time for grief and then I can see the blessings I had all the while. Its a process not an event. I loved your post, and yes those clowns coming out of the car is a childhood memory. Thank you for reminding me of Joan’s book The Year of Magical Thinking, its sad yet I admire her greatly. And your writing is phenomenal.

    • Carol, you are so supportive and I thank for that. Even my own family members don’t always read my stuff and think I’m great!!! LOL, so it’s so wonderful to have you in my corner. Yes, we are challenged in life and we plow through. Sometimes the business of coping blocks out the thought HOW AM I DOING THIS? That’s how we do it, we just keep going. Hope your news today is all good news, Beth

  4. “The gift of shared experience.” I am about to go back to a memoir I’m trying to write about what it was like to be a young reporter in New York City the 1960s–a Mad Men time. I’ve written your words on a post-it to remind me–when I unpack the version I started last year–what the goal is. We can’t all be Joan Didion’s but there is a gift to share–even if it’s just with our grown children and their children.

    • You honor me with your post-it. Wishing you the best with your memoir and I think the timing could be awesome, Beth

  5. I loved walking with you through this post. Joan Didion was recommended to me by my last writing instructor. The universe is nudging! Lots of good things to ponder here, thank you for sharing your insights and wisdom. Wishing you a peace filled weekend.

  6. Thank you for writing this piece Beth. I have been considering what a memoir should be ever since we launched ourselves into this whole new world of country living two years ago. Now I have put together my own memoir by piecing together various blog posts I have written along the way. I agree that the best memoirs are like a gift of life experiences that show others your unique way of living your life. I did not have to work from memory (thank goodness!) I just brought together my own work in some sort of coherent structure. I decided from the beginning that I would do it regardless if anyone else finds it interesting. I wanted my own record of these events.

    • Yay, a great idea and one I have thought about but simply have not done. Wishing you the best with this. Blogging does help me get down my thoughts and sometimes they qualify as memoir and sometimes not. But I also have 100 pages of a memoir I wrote a long time ago about my growing up. It’s precious to me, but not sure anyone else would want to read it. Hugs, Beth

  7. As someone who got a memoir published this year, I encourage you to keep shining a light on those memories! It’s worth all the time and effort to write those important stories! Any time you want or need a pep talk…

    • Thanks, Risa. I wish we were closer. I believe you are in northern California and I’m in southern. But some day. I’ll keep it in mind. Truly. Right now my big focus is on this novel I’ve been writing and writing…it’s a great life!

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