Writing the Shorter Memoir
By: Robert Waldvogel
You are singularly unique and no one in the past or future was or will be the exact equivalent of you. This philosophy can be extended to your life and the experiences that comprise it, in terms of circumstances, time, the involvement of other people, your viewpoint, strengths, weaknesses, reactions, feelings, emotions, and conclusions. There is nothing more selfless than using that life, or at least parts of it, to improve, inspire, or benefit another’s. The amount of experiences, when considered in retrospect, must be staggering in number and this was expressed by the name of a writing course once offered at Hofstra University on Long Island, called “Everyone Has a Story to Tell.” Begin thinking, as you read this, what yours may be.
Who do you know more about than yourself? Even if you believe that there are parts and aspects about yourself that you have lost touch with, or never quite knew, writing short or long memoirs may remedy that. When Oprah Winfrey tried to determine what the most important thing to a human being was, the consensus she received was “That I matter!” Writing a memoir is one way of demonstrating that you do.
“To have a voice is to have a self, and to have a self is powerful,” wrote Bill Roorbach in “Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature” (Writer’s Digest Books, 2008, p. 18).
And Socrates wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
THE MEMOIR ANALYZED:
Depending upon whether you write for yourself or for a larger audience, what may most matter in a memoir is not necessarily what happened, but what it meant to you.
“What happened to the memoirist is not what matters,” according to Jane Taylor McDonnell in her book, “Living to Tell the Tale” (Penguin Books, 1998, p. viii); “it matters only what the memoirist makes of what happened.”
This may not entail the subtle difference you initially perceive.
Take a look at the following two lines to compare this concept:
1). What happened: When I walked along the beach on the sweltering, late-summer day, I looked out toward the ocean.
2). Makes happen: When I walked along the beach on the sweltering, late-summer day, I looked out toward the ocean, realizing the infinity of the world and with that infinity, for the first time, I saw God.
After taking your readers on a journey that you yourself have already traveled, you need to deliver them to the same destination as your own. This is not necessarily a physical one. Instead, it is a destination of learning, insight, new perspective, understanding, and wisdom, enabling memoirist and reader alike to interpret, sort out, and conclude what occurred to him or her. The journey itself can be intensely pleasurable or intensely painful.
In essence, a memoir illustrates “I learned this by experiencing that.”
“The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world because engagement makes experience (and) experience makes wisdom… ,” continues McDonnell (p. viii).
Writing a memoir recovers lost memories, captures events, and releases emotions, enabling the author to reach deep into himself and attain some degree of therapeutic value. It may ultimately heal.
“We… all aspire to become meaning-makers,” according to Eric Maisel in his book, “Deep Writing: 7 Principles that Bring Ideas to Life” (Jeremy P. Tarcher/ Putnam, 1999, p. 5). “The more we want ‘to give shape to our fate,’ as Albert Camus put it, the more the meaning we make or fail to make concern us. A meaning-maker is a person who takes her humanity and experiences and attempts to put them together coherently, artfully, beautifully, but at the very least somehow, for her own sake and for the sake of others. That product may or may not change the world, or even reach the world. But a meaning-maker can do nothing less than struggle to make meaning, because meaning-making is moral imperative.”
You, expressed in the first person singular (“I”), are both the experiencing person and the narrator, and you therefore directly engage the reader.
“A memoir is a true story, a work of narrative built directly from the memory of the writer, with an added element of creative research… ” Roorbach also wrote, (p. 13). “The writer is also the protagonist-the person to whom the events of the story happen… (It) arises in and exists only because of the first-person singular: the I remembering.”
“… The reader shares two names with the writer: I and me,” he later wrote (p. 158). “And though the process of identification is largely subconscious, a powerful connection between reader and writer is forged in the continual invocation of self that is the first person,” creating that soul-to-soul link.
Memoirs should thus contain the following elements.
1), A memoir should be written in the first-person singular-that is, say “I,”
2). It should be a container for the author’s insight.
It should take the reader on a journey. The author’s work should have a specific beginning, middle, and end.
3). The topic should be universal.
4). The author’s life is interesting to him, because it is about him. However, his memoir should appeal to others.
5). A memoir should impart some knowledge, understanding, or insight by the end of the reader’s journey-that is, I learned this by experiencing that.
Maisel, Eric. “Deep Writing: 7 Principles that Bring Ideas to Life.” New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1999.
McDonnell, Jane Taylor. “Live to Tell the Tale.” New York: Penguin Books, 1998.
Roorbach, Bill, with Kristen Keckler, PhD. “Writing Life Stories: How to Make Memories into Memoirs, Ideas into Essays, and Life into Literature.” Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 2008.
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