Writing Memoir

The Paradox of Memoir Writing

It has become a necessity for me to write down my early memories. If I neglect to do so for a single day, unpleasant physical symptoms immediately follow. As soon as I set to work they vanish and my head feels perfectly clear…. Something within me has been touched. A gradient has formed, and I must write.  -Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, and Reflections

The seemingly contradictory thing about memoir is when you write about yourself, you’re writing about experiences that other people can relate to as well. And even if some people don’t have similar life stories, their minds take in yours to contemplate, reject, put aside or absorb. I may not be a baseball player, but I can understand making a comeback. I’m not a mother, but I can feel sympathy for the trials and tribulations of raising a child. By writing about you, you’re adding your story to the collective consciousness.

This paradox can also be seen in travel which is considered the Holy Grail of self-improvement, adventure and growth. When you travel, you take in new sights, sounds and smells by stepping outside of your comfort zone, your neighborhood bubble, native country, language and culture. You’re challenged by your short-comings, preconceived ideas of how things are done or how to behave. If you travel to a country poorer or richer than yours, you can see how the other half lives. In this way, you can broaden your inner horizons when you seek outward experiences.

The same, of course, can be said about charity or community work, when you give to others, you give to yourself, too. Then there’s the meditative benefits (stillness) that folks experience when running or doing another forms of exercise (movement). How we behave in society appears individualistic and independent of others, like when we simply pick up trash or stop at a red light, but it’s clear that we all benefit from abiding by rules and our agreed social contracts.

There’s a false idea that writing memoir is the ultimate in navel-gazing. That people who write true stories, from memory, letters or notes, who write about themselves are vain, self-absorbed, and lack the talent to write about anything else. The problem is, just like any other genre, there are well-written stories and not so great ones. And the fact that everyone appears to want to write one, doesn’t help in the belief that writing memoir is actually a worthy undertaking.

We know that there are many benefits to writing:
• learning to express yourself clearly
• handling hard times
• forming a relationship with gratitude
• jotting down ideas
• gaining insights into who you are, your needs and wants

There are also great creative benefits, as Julia Cameron wrote about in her book, The Artist’s Way, specifically, her ‘morning pages’, which consists of writing non-stop, long-hand on three pages first thing in the morning.

Many successful people write as well, whether it be gratitude lists, or to-do lists, what-to-do-tomorrow lists, they write for themselves so they can be more productive. But you don’t necessarily have to write a lot. I suppose it depends on what your goals are, but if it’s to become more self-aware here are some more tips.

Cheryl Strayed asks the question (from one of my favorite podcast interviews), “Who was your darkest teacher?” I can’t imagine writing that one without gaining a clearer idea of the lessons I’ve learned. Even if you’re simply emoting and getting thoughts out on paper, you’re still getting them out of your head, which isn’t the best place to let them rot and fester like forgotten leftovers in the dark recesses of the fridge. Then, if you decided to share your answer, I’m willing to wager there are people out there who can not only relate, but who want to relate to your experience.

A big thank you, mahalo to those who downloaded, purchased and read my book! I have to admit, I’m a little embarassed by my first effort!

I’ll be honest. I cringe a bit when I tell people I’ve written a memoir, and I’m working on another one. I fear what they are thinking. Some are perfectly nice and act interested, but that doesn’t make me wonder if they’re thinking all the negative things that people tend to think when they hear or see that word. Part of the purpose of writing this post is to say, “Hey, memoir writing’s valuable! I’m not conceited! Try it, if you don’t believe me!”

What’s interesting is how we seperate non-fiction and fiction storytelling, specifically looking down on memoir, and yet we have quotes we all know like, “truth is stranger than fiction” or “based on a true story”. Many fictional stories are inspired by real events, on a conglomeration of people known, and factual towns, schools and offices. My own attempt at playwriting in college was a thinly-veiled story about one of the aspects of my childhood. (When my professor asked me if the story was about me, I said it wasn’t. I became spooked and too terrified to continue with it for fear of folks knowing the story was about me.)

One of the reasons why I was attracted to Waldorf education, and later became a Waldorf teacher, was because of the curriculum’s emphasis on stories. Each grade centers on a theme, for example, in the second grade, the focus is on the stories of fables and saints, and in the first grade, its fairy tales from around the world.

We didn’t read the stories from a book, but had to memorize them. In fact, as part of the interview process for the teaching job I eventually got, I had to tell a story to a kindergarten class. But the reason I got the job was because I decided to tell not a story from Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers’ Grimm, but a story about a Chinese boy who had saved his village from a (seemingly evil) dragon. Interestingly, I was hired for being different and that would end up being the reason I was fired, as well.

In any case, this was where I excelled – oral storytelling. This was where I felt nourished. I loved learning about the meaning behind these old stories that many see as just some frivolous form of entertainment. I loved discovering a common thread between fairy tales all over the world (for instance, there are 345 varieties of the Cinderella story!) I liked finding stories that challenged the way I originally thought of fairy tales and finding female leads like Gerda in The Snow Queen.

It seemed inevitable then that I’d discover Joseph Campbell’s work (best known for The Hero With a Thousand Faces) on myths, legends and archetypes. Through Joseph Campbell’s work and analysis on what makes a hero’s story, I discovered not only a common framework in which stories are built, but that everyone’s on their own hero’s journey. In other words, everyone plays the leading role in their own lives.

Yes, we know this, but we forget it. I know I succumb to a bunch of the clichés. I get lost in the mundane. I miss the forest for the trees. I get bogged down by the little stuff. I sweat the little stuff. I let the little stuff get in the way of the big stuff.

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi

There’s value in knowing yourself. There’s power in writing about you. And there’s magic in stories.

When I was a child, I listened to my mom talk about my father because that’s all I had, memories. And then I would ask her to tell me those stories again. When I started to pour myself out on paper, I didn’t understand all the benefits, but I kept doing it because it helped me. Then later, as I got older, I recognized that writing + stories + me equaled something meaningful.

The best stories I think offer an open window, an invitation into a culture, sub-culture or different world other than my own. It has universal themes like love and loss that span borders or belief systems. I’m lost and found at the same time.

I learned about what it was like to grow up Jewish in Mississippi by reading my friend Edward’s book, The Peddler’s Grandson. We met in Ecuador when we were both teachers there and I shared my interest in writing a memoir. It was a quick and fascinating read of a different perspective of life down South and during the Civil Right’s Movement.

Another book that I dipped in and out of because they are short stories was Written by Herself: Volume I: Autobiographies of American Women: An Anthology. I read the stories of American black women, and the stories of pioneering female scientists and doctors. That book helped to put my own problems into perspective by giving me an opportunity to get educated and absorbed in the early struggles of American women.

The Glass Castle simply took my breath away. Jeannette’s story is unique, timeless and shocking because she tells the story of her upbringing among neglectful yet loving parents, and a life of forced poverty. I love the complexity and I’m not surprised Hollywood has attempted to make this into a movie. I fear they won’t be able to capture the beauty of the book.

But here’s the thing, I believe stories can help heal the world. Stories make the world a brighter place. Our common thread is told and retold in stories. True stories have the power to bring people together, and ironically, when we write about ourselves, we sort ourselves out and we become better citizens, and better citizens contribute to a healthier society. It’s not selfishness to try to figure yourself out, it’s liberating, necessary and it’s the kind of inner work that reaps outer rewards.

 

Do you write about your own life?

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26 thoughts on “The Paradox of Memoir Writing

  1. I have kept journals most of my life. Maybe it started with my first “diary” with the little key when I was a pre-teen. I write things down and put it away only to look back on them years later. Then they give me the willies, because I don’t like the feelings attached to what was going on in my life when I wrote it. Sometimes there were moments of, “Wow, remember when we lived in the little cracker box of a house?” But mostly I don’t like to re-read them and ending up tossing them in the trash when we move.

    I found a shop here in Coimbra that makes paper and journals. Yes, I couldn’t resist and bought one with the intent to only put down happy, positive things about my life. We shall see.

    When Broken Glass Floats

    This book was written by a professor my son had when he was at the University of Oregon. It is her story about growing up under the Khmer Rouge. Wow, just wow. I finished the book and broke down sobbing into my freshly made bowl of rice.

    I had a very hard time with The Glass Castle and throughout the book I wrote page after page from memories of my childhood that so closely mirrored her story. In the end it was good for me and I felt a lighter. Books do come into your life at the right time.

    Again, I appreciate you and Eric’s creative works very much.
    All my love,
    Linda

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think you necessarily have to keep your journals or look back at them. Eric and I were recently talking about looking back at past dream journals. I think the point of writing about you, your dreams or your past has to do with getting them out (of your head) and gaining distance and ultimately letting them go. At least that seems to be the case for me.

      There are some very quality books about survival stories of the Khmer Rouge that I haven’t the stomach to look at yet. Maybe after I’ve left. I don’t know. It feels too real being here. Looking at specific people, knowing they are that age, and wondering what part did they play in the tragedy. I work with a Khmer American who has told me his own tale of escape and that in itself, coupled with visiting S-21, yeah, it’s too intense, you know what I mean?

      Your childhood closely resembles The Glass Castle!!!!???? Oh, Lin, we gotta talk. Save me a date where I can listen to your stories. I’ll buy you lunch or dinner. I’ve got to make it back to Europe one day anyhow!

      Thanks for your love and support with Eric and I, we deeply appreciate it! xxoo

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  2. There’s definitely a paradox when it comes to writing about ourselves as you so eloquently pointed out, and that there is fiction in reality and also reality in fiction. Every memory can’t be certain – sometimes it’s just a feeling and go along with that feeling to come up with something. Then with fiction, as you said it can based on real life events. For me, my blog is mostly based on my life as I was growing up and also as I am now. Reflecting and writing about my life, I always ask myself – is this story my own, or do others share the same story too or perhaps can relate to it in some way. What’s the purpose of my story in this bigger picture of the world.

    Unlike you, I don’t cringe for the reason you do when tell others you’re writing a memoir. I don’t fear what they think, but I fear that I won’t be able to do what I say I would do – that one day I will just pack it all in and won’t be serious about the write stuff again. I also worry if my writing will have any relevance to not just the world, but to myself too – and will it be a fun or at least worthwhile process. I guess, with anything that we do in life, there’s always something to get out of. It just depends on how we look at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, as my student reminded me, just yesterday, our fears are our nightmares of our own fabrication. I, too, fear I won’t be able to communicate what I want to say clearly, but experience has taught me that there is always room to be misunderstood. And that takes the pressure off a bit, as well as reminds me that even your best effort will be seen as not good enough by others.

      So, you’re right. It’s a process. And this is why I think pursuing writing and artistic endeavours are so important – it is the process of doing it, and seeing what you gain out of it, even if you were just mindful and present during the process of creating. That’s valid.

      You’re good to take a look at your experiences in the bigger context of things. That’s great that your blog does that for you. I don’t think I do that consciously. I’m much more of a ‘this is what I feel like talking about’ blogger. When I schedule things it feels less authentic and organic. Of course, this makes me a poor planner in this regard. But we all blog for different reasons.

      Thanks for stopping by, Mabel!

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      1. Sometimes what we create will only matter to us sometime down the track. It’s funny where art can take us and make us look differently at ourselves in a different point in time. Always a pleasure, Lani.

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  3. My first foray into blogging was a personal blog where I basically aired my dirty laundry under anonymity. It was cathartic to get a lot of that out, but thankfully I learned that it’s not necessarily right to write about the kinds of things I was writing in public. So I turned to LiveJournal and used that as a private journal for years.

    The timing of you writing this and me reading it right now is sort of fortuitous. I’m in a quandary about my own blog. I want to keep writing about my stories and the mundane things I get up to, but I have that voice in the back of my head telling me no one wants to read it and there’s no point writing about it. It’s a struggle right now to shut that voice up!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a struggle to keep going when you feel like no one is listening or reading. There have been times I’ve come close to deleting this blog, believe me. I’ve been blogging since 2009 and I don’t have a huge fanbase like other blogs who have been up and running for under a year. It can feel pretty depressing.

      But I told myself, first and foremost, this blog has to be about what I want to say. No clever marketing, no ads. I don’t do niche writing. I do everything wrong, nothing that I’m “supposed” to do to grow my blog.

      Although, over the years, I’ve been consistent (just not so much lately) and that has made me write more and for an audience, no matter how small. This I see as a good habit. And I have tons of “journal like material” that I can look back at like a scrapbook. Esentially this blog has been my ‘expat years’ and I got to say, I’m proud that I’ve kept it up, even if that’s all I can say.

      So, I guess you have to decide if it’s worth doing for you. Or maybe you want to change it up a bit and have a slightly different focus? I don’t know. Good luck with the wrestling. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The wrestling is tiring. I’ll get there eventually.

        “I do everything wrong, nothing that I’m “supposed” to do to grow my blog.” <- Love this.

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  4. Like Linda above, I used to keep diaries in my pre-teens and teens. Later, they induced so much cringing that I threw them all away, although I wish I would have burned them in a bonfire to ensure their permanent destruction. Even though I grew up constantly writing my own stories, I’ve felt a myriad of emotions looking back on them. Very few times I’ve thought, “wow, this is really good”, but most times it’s, “omg kill it with FIRE”. Most of things I’ve written have felt overly private and that letting anyone in would be a devastating violation, almost like an intruder in an intimate space that’s reserved for only a very special few.

    So one would wonder why I would willingly choose to display my writing on the web for everyone to see. The cloak of privacy is long gone. I guess it’s a way of letting my voice be heard that is not trespassing into that intimate, private zone, but being comfortable enough to share in the things I think people could relate to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Right. I definitely don’t share everything here or elsewhere on the web. I’m not a social media confessor.I think I’m too old for that. I also see social media as ‘being on a stage’ and I want what I say to be controlled and thought through.I’ve seen too many knee-jerk reactions, screaming screeds and even ‘over-zealous should have waited until they knew more information’ posts, too. Ouch. Too embarassing for me.

      I think we should have ‘private zones’ as you put it. Just because we can share everything and anything as quick as can be, doesn’t mean we should do it! But what a collection we are amassing – archaeology’s new digs.

      Burning things do seem rather carthartic. It was nice when I had a fireplace and could easily burn things. I remember when I broke up with my first boyfriend, I took all of this things and threw them in the neighborhood dumpster. Hahahaha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oooh yeah, I get second hand embarrassment witnessing some of those social media meltdowns; sadly, some involved have been family members. Eeek. It’s too easy to get riled up and hit the “share” button. Like they say, once on the internet, FOREVER on the internet.

        Speaking of archaeology, I read “The Lost City of the Monkey God” after you recommended it on IG. What a fascinating read! I’m now forever terrified of that face-eating version of the parasite. A stark reminder that no matter how evolved, intelligent, or sophisticated we think we are as human beings, we are SO vulnerable to the relentless and merciless creations of Mother Earth. [how is that for a tangent from the topic at hand hahaha]

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m glad you liked the book! I was so enamored by all the details, hard work and how long the legend had spanned. And there have been other books that have talked about how vulnerable we are as a species to diseases. Unfortunately, I think we’re due to another great wipe out. Terrifying.

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  5. Thank you for this. I’ve thought about starting a blog myself in order to tell my story (mostly for my own benefit) of continuing to learn about myself through my own experiences for years! Now that I’ve started it feels refreshing to finally get all these stories out of my head and to memorialize them differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I decided I wanted to write, really write down my story, I really wrote a lot. I look back at that time with wonder because when I’m looking for something specific and find it in my archives, I’m astonished by how much I wrote! And remember.

      These days, I don’t remember as much and it might be because I got it all down and have let it go. Enjoy your journey! I’m glad I helped, in whatever small way. Cheers.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Does writing a blog count? I don’t think I could write a full memoir, writing more than 2 pages of anything already seems impossible to me! So I respect anyone who can do it, haha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I can’t wait for the first real studies of what blogging does for a person’s development and personality. Of course, it’s a little different in that you are getting more immediate feedback on what you say, but I think blogging is like writing and has it’s benefits.

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  7. I’m writing a memoir centered around the birth of my fourth child, where I died on the table from an amniotic fluid embolism, was revived, and how my recovery has been. (Spoiler: it’s brutal) I’ve been suicidal this year, I’m trying to recover medically from a rare thing, and be a parent to four child. Harrowing doesn’t even cover it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope the writing process is healing. And I hope you don’t forget to ask those around you for help. All the best.

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  8. I don’t know how you find the time to do thAt and THIS. Appreciate the thoughtful post. I’ve been writing autobiographical poetry, drinking from the grail of those who’ve done wonders with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. My personal blog is totally full of stories about fragments of my life, past and near present. Creativity can be healing and self-propagating if I practice it from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

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