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Should You Write a Memoir?

When I wrote Blackbird, the first of four memoir-based novels, I had no idea that the process would impact me in the way it has.

I didn’t write a memoir to create a legacy for my three children, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren. I have neither encouraged nor discouraged them from reading Blackbird or my subsequent novels, My Mother’s Daughter, The Perfect Mother, and The First and Last Lesson. (The fourth book will be available this summer.)

Instead of a legacy, I hoped that sharing events in my life in fictional memoir form would be freeing for me and simultaneously inspire other women who’d gone through similar traumas.

Sharing One’s Truth

In shaping the events into a story, I was trying to communicate my truth to others. In her blog post on why we should write our memoirs, Amber Lee Starfire says that sharing our truth is the primary purpose of memoir writing.

Writing about your truth is one motivator

The title of Mahatma Gandhi’s memoir is The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi wrote that his whole life was a series of experiments with truth. His memoir reports the results of those experiments.

Learning to Write Fiction

Given my desire to write a fictional memoir, I first had to learn how to write fiction—how to tell a story. Much of my previous writing had been informational, such as articles on how to get fit. Or it had been functional. For example, part of my responsibilities as a wage and salary specialist was to write analyses of jobs for compensation purposes. Creating a dramatic scene with dialogue, characters, life-altering events, and emotions was a different kind of writing.

Instruction Needed

Beth Lieberman, an extraordinary and experienced editor and writing coach, patiently taught me what I needed to attend to and where I went astray. Although I cannot explain how she did it, she capably helped me see where I was falling short without leaving me feeling diminished. I never finished a session with her without feeling empowered, excited, and more enthusiastic than ever.

Critically necessary in writing a memoir is choosing which events to include and which to leave out. Ninety-nine percent of the events in our lives, like going to the grocery store or attending a meeting, are boring. I had to find the dramatic moments.

I called these moments “turning points.” They represented junctures where something occurred that shifted the direction of events in the story.

Turning points can guide the narrative

Besides choosing what to include, I also created a persona separate from myself, named her Jane Bertram, and began to write about the life experiences we shared.

Psychic Distance

The next step in the process was equally essential: in each scene, I had to decide how much psychic distance I created between Jane and myself as the author.

The distance was significant when I described Jane’s actions. The psychic distance lessened when I dramatized Jane’s conversations with others. And when I revealed Jane’s thoughts, there was no psychic distance; I climbed inside Jane’s head.

As the author, I don’t think I made conscious writing decisions or choices about psychic distance. Instead, I believe the circumstances of the scene dictated my strategy.

A More Profound Process Was Going On

Initially, learning the craft was my main focus. But the more I wrote, the more I realized that a profound psychological process was occurring.

As recurring themes in Jane’s life emerged, I saw how themes repeated in my own life. The perspective Jane acquired only with the passage of time co-occurred with the observation of patterns in my life.

As Jane grew in understanding and forgiveness of herself and others, my sense of compassion similarly expanded. Jane’s growing awareness of her limitations was humbling, as was mine. And Jane’s realization that each person was doing their best given their limitations and circumstances mirrored my growing awareness.

Jane’s perspective on what she had formerly perceived as unrelated threads running through her life changed as she realized how events were inextricably connected and woven together. Similarly, my perspective changed. For the first time, I could see the beauty in the patterned connections.

Threads woven together create patterns

Jane’s appreciation deepened for the assistance she’d received in her life journey, sometimes from fellow travelers and sometimes from unknowable sources. As Jane realized the significance of the help she’d received, I could see more clearly the gifts I’d received.

A Transformative Process

Writing my memoir was a healing and transformative process. Who knew that such an amazing outcome was even possible?

Diana Raab, PhD, knew. She had researched the topic in graduate school and has spent her career encouraging memoir writing. In her summary of her study of five accomplished memoirists, she wrote, “The writing experience offered the participants a chance to review their lives, find resolution and redemption, find inner peace, and establish the clarity of mind to move forward in their lives.”

Wow! That describes perfectly what I accidentally found to be true.

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Memoir writing requires a person to live and observe life simultaneously. My theory is that this dual consciousness—the ability to live and concurrently observe oneself and others—leads to the rich rewards of memoir writing.

Burning Need

Because the experience was so valuable, I encourage others to write their memoirs. That others don’t want to write their memoirs puzzles me because I had an intense desire to write mine.

Diana Raab finds that people write their memoirs for many reasons, but the commonest reason is that “they have a burning need to do so.” Evidently, the burning desire is essential.

I’m curious though. Have you considered writing your memoir?

Margaret Atwood, the author of the popular book The Handmaid’s Tale, says, “In the end, we'll all become stories.” Why not tell yours?



(All images courtesy of Canva)