Next weekend I’m facilitating a memoir-writing workshop focusing on writing for transformation. I’ll be sharing information based upon my forthcoming book, Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life.
I’m the author of two full-length memoirs and many short personal essays. People often ask me why people write memoirs. What I usually tell them is that there are a multitude of reasons, but typically, it stems from a burning need to do so.
The memoirists whom I interviewed for my research claimed they had a story to tell and felt they were the only ones who could tell it. Others might have secrets to share, or maybe they want to study or understand certain situations. Additional reasons to write a memoir include preserving a family’s legacy, learning more about one’s ancestors, a search for personal identity, gaining insight into the past, or healing from a traumatic experience. Writer André Aciman believes that people write memoirs because they want a second chance to create another version of their lives.
When you write a memoir, you are writing your version of what you think happened from your own perspective. Someone else might have another version, and years and years later your perception of an incident might eventually change.
Once when speaking with writer Maxine Hong Kingston regarding her two published memoirs, she told me that her inspiration stemmed from her reflection about what had happened historically to her family as immigrants, and about the ghosts from her Chinese past—particularly regarding her aunt’s suicide after she’d been ostracized from the community for having an illegitimate child. The fact that her aunt was born into, and then forgotten by, her family grated on Kingston’s psyche for many years. And although Kingston’s mother wanted her daughter to share her stories with the world, she was told to hold on to the secret about her aunt’s suicide. Kingston wrote The Woman Warrior as a way to explore these conflicting messages.
Memoirist Mark Matousek said that his inspiration for writing his first memoir, Sex Death, Enlightenment (1996), stemmed from his transcendent realization that his life as a busy writer for a large New York magazine was taking a psychological toll on him. He felt a deep desire to slow down and extricate himself from the fast track. It was as if a voice inside him was giving him this message. For him, writing his memoir was a personal, mystical, and spiritual exploration, and in the process, he found himself transforming in a positive way.
Throughout her entire life, Linda Gray Sexton, the daughter of celebrated poet Anne Sexton (who committed suicide when she was in her 40s), has struggled to come to terms with losing her mother in such a way. Writing her two memoirs—Searching for Memory Street (1994) and Half in Love (2011)—has helped her heal, and to reconcile herself to the trauma of her childhood. Writing has also helped her deal with her own emotional angst. In the latter book, Sexton said that writing helped her come to terms with her mother’s death and to disentangle herself from the strong tentacles that the suicide had attached to her own life.
When a family member commits suicide, this affects one’s family history in a way that is difficult to shake. Linda Gray Sexton’s writing is so powerful because she not only uses the written word as a vehicle to express revenge or anger, but does so as a way to come to terms with her own demons.
Many individuals who write memoirs are also the types of people who like posing questions, and this quality suggests a particular personality trait inherent to writers, especially memoirists. Posing questions is inherent to wanting to understand one’s past experiences.
It’s also important to note why you should not write a memoir—and that is for revenge. Revenge does not serve anyone well. In fact, the best revenge is to live a good life. It’s also difficult to read a memoir that judges rather than reflects upon the past. Take Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), for example: he had a horrific childhood, but after reading his book, you empathize with him, but you don’t pity him. He wouldn’t have wanted that. Other moving and inspirational memoirs are Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (1987), Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face (2003), Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club (2005), Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2001), Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life (2000), Townie by Andre Dubus III (2012), and Winter Journal by Paul Aster (2013).
It’s true that if you’re writing a memoir you plan to publish, you should keep in mind that typically readers are drawn to and fascinated by dramatic stories that are fast-moving and sensational, but what they’re repelled by are self-pity stories, or those written from a “Woe is me” point of view. After a while, that perspective becomes tiring for the reader. Rather, when reading someone else’s memoir, people usually want to be informed or transformed.
For me, writing Regina’s Closet, my memoir about my grandmother, who committed suicide when I was ten, has been one of the most valuable experiences of my life, because I got to learn so much about my past that I might not have learned otherwise. My sentiments are similar to those of the poet Pablo Neruda, who says that for him, writing is like breathing. Personally, I cannot live without writing, and like many writers, I live to write.
That is another reason to write a memoir—to do what you love doing.