Why and How I wrote The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write
Memoirs bring light into the world. To read a memoir is to walk a mile in another’s shoes, someone who may be quite different from us. When we understand another through their eyes, understand the joys and tragedies of their lives, we have empathy for them.
Empathy reduces the stereotyping that leads to xenophobia and all the other phobias about people who may be different from us. In turn, this reduces violence, and that makes the world a better place. President Obama talked about this in his recent NATO speech about race, guns and the tragic shootings in the States.
I began this path to compiling a book on memoir writing when I realized my father would one day be gone. To preserve his spirit, his wit, his funny and sad and wise stories, I interviewed him by phone, fifteen minutes at a time, jogging his memory with lines like “and what about the one where …” and off he would go, both of us laughing as much as when he’d told them at the dinner table decades earlier. I jotted down fragments while he was talking, then filled in the gaps later. I put all the stories together into a permanent booklet. Dad is no longer here, but his legacy lives on in those inimitable words on paper.
The process was so much fun and so valuable to both of us and other family members that I started a small business doing this for elders. What a privilege to hear stories, to enter other worlds! I put together a course to teach others how to write their own life stories—my background as a teacher gave me the confidence and know-how. The course grew and grew. I did more and more research on the writing process. I read many, many memoirs. I knew two other women who had writing projects and we met once a month with work to read. The pressure of deadlines!
As four years drew to a close, I had thirty-three chapters covering what were to me the most important aspects of memoir writing. In the process, I tested material on the memoir writing classes I was giving. To cover the daunting costs of publishing, I crowd funded on Indiedgogo.
There are many reasons for writing memoir, but one of the primary ones is to offer nourishment and possibility to those who come after. You offer what you have learned by means of your stories, by leaving visible tracks behind you. A memoir that is bound in a form meant to last through the generations is visible and accessible in a similar way that a statue is seen and pondered. They are both acts of remembrance. Both are art that alert us to what matters.
We do expect memoirs to be true. Truth can be dangerous—on the other hand, telling your truth can be healing, can be shelter, can fell the barriers of stereotyping, can be inspirational. Some may want to record tragic events that may be terrible to remember but more terrible to forget, obliterate or hide. Others may simply write for the joy that storytelling brings them as they endeavour to get better at bringing their experiences onto the page, choosing the right word like a painter selects the perfect colour.
Elie Wiesel died last week. His memoir Night tells of the horrific events of the Holocaust. He gave voice to the pain that other survivors felt but could not write about. That’s another reason for writing memoir: to bear witness for others.
Maybe you have a mostly joyful memoir to write. Just for fun, let me suggest Free Days with George by Colin Campbell. Good, good story, with life lessons, too. No hints! Well, just one. George is a dog, a very big dog: a Newfoundland.
The world needs empathy. The world needs your story. I need your story. The more stories we know, the more inclusive we become as individuals and as a global community. When I read your story and understand you—what pains you, what lifts you up—I feel for you, I have empathy for you, I cannot be indifferent to you.
And that’s why I wrote The Gift of Memoir, and continue to give workshops in memoir writing. To inspire people to write down their stories. Because it’s important. Story by story, memoirs change people, change the world.