“Why do we write memoir?” This question is posed on many writing blogs, writer websites and to writing discussion groups. I am curious to know my fellow writers’ (of personal stories) responses. I read on. They write “. . . . to wring every possible lesson . . . to learn about my own past . . . I wrote my memoir for perspective.” I continue and realize I haven’t read two same answers.
I read with great interest a post by Maria Popova on www.brainpickings.com, to learn the reasons from a few celebrated writers on the art of telling personal stories. One possible explanation is that we are drawn to memoir maybe because it has something to do with our longing. Joan Didion explains, “for keeping on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Delving deeper, there has to be something that drives memoirists to open up to strangers, urging them to take heed to their exposure that reveals the good and the bad, the joys and sufferings. Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro says, “It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons.” She explains that writing memoir implants your story deep inside you. “It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.”
Consider the power behind these words, “Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memoir.” For me, this statement could not be more truthful. I admit my memoir writing journey, one that has continued for over ten years with stops, starts and forks in the road, has been affected by its own lengthy gestation. My reflective self in my 40’s ten years ago is very different from my reflections of today. When I started writing my memoir, I didn’t know why a birch tree, thriving and filled with shoots of branches and leaves, was integral to my sense of home. My story started when I was seven or eight with a simple reference to trees. I didn’t know why I had a thing for trees, just that there was something about them. Then the reference turned to a focus on one particular tree, a birch, in my front yard, nestled in a corner where it was usually included in family photographs. Over time, my now reflective self understands what my relationship was with my birch tree, home and self. A universal theme has changed, evolved and continues to do so. Shapiro adds, “One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so that they make more sense . . . It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it.”
I identified with Anne Lamott, author of best seller Bird by Bird who writes about spirit, generosity, grief, just to name a few of her topics, when she said, “I write memoir because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help.” Another memoir author, Meghan Daum reiterates a similar idea, “To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.”
Over my memoir writing years, I struggled with why I was writing my book. I had scanned popular, best-selling memoirs and found most discussed common themes – trauma, crisis, pain, recovery. Though my story has notes of overcoming adversity, it’s central them is far removed from loss, suffering, addiction, self-help. I discovered I was writing pages of optimism, of the glass is half full, not empty, about trust and faith so that you, the reader, can see it too in your life. I identified with the answer to why I write as a way to learn about my past, for my perspective.
In all my reads along the way of answers to a universal question posed to personal story writers, I have discovered that responses are varied and wide-ranging and that there is no right or common answer. Each writer has his or her own reasons as to why they write. No matter what your reasons are for why you write personal stories, I’ve realized they are indeed, personal.