A memoir forces me to stop and remember carefully. It is an exercise in truth. In a memoir, I look at myself, my life, and the people I love the most in the mirror of the blank screen. In a memoir, feelings are more important than facts, and to write honestly, I have to confront my demons. Isabel Allende, Brainy Quote
I am thrilled to have you meet my new friend, Nancy Julien Kopp. Nancy and I met through our blogs. She will explore why we write and read memoir.
Nancy explains that although she has not written a memoir she has many short memoir pieces that have been published in anthologies and at e-zines on the web. Some have been placed in writing contests, as well.
There’s more than one way to get our stories out there. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Nancy’s slice -of-life stories on her blog which showcases her storytelling abilities.
Why We Write and Read Memoir
Why do we write memoir? Why do we like to read memoir? Let’s explore both questions.
Why do we write memoir?
Jeanette Walls, author of The Glass Castle said “Memoir is about handing over your life to someone and saying, This is what I went through, this is who I am, and maybe you can learn something from it.”
This quote gives us one reason people write memoir. We have the desire to help readers learn something about the human spirit, about life, about overcoming difficulties. It’s a service to others.
I had the misfortune to lose two of my children as infants at different times and for different reasons. Later, I had the desire to write about my experience to help other mothers who had gone through something similar. That was a true and conscious thought but subconsciously, I had the need to write about this period of my life to help me deal with the grief and to move on. The strange part of wanting to write about my losses is that it took me a full thirty years before I could actually write the words. When I did, the floodgates opened and I wrote several memoir pieces about that period of my life that were published.
So, besides helping our readers learn something, we write memoir to aid us in healing after a loss, abuse, addiction and more. The writing does not give us full healing but it is an important step in achieving it.
We also write memoir to help us understand a certain part of our life. We have a need to know why we acted as we did, why we allowed certain things to influence us so readily, why circumstances evolved as they did. We can’t change what occurred but if we understand what happened, dealing with it is easier.
A quote from Kathy Pooler, memoir writer and host of this blog, gives one more reason for writing memoir. She said, “Writing, especially memoir writing, is a healing process, providing closure to the author.” We crave closure when we’ve gone through a harrowing experience.
Another reason to write memoir is to savor the past with both its negatives and positives. Note that I added ‘positives.’ Memoirists should add the good parts of whatever period of life they are writing about. Memoirists often write about the growing-up years for that is what made us who we are today and those years contain happy memories, too.
My state authors’ organization offers an annual writing contest with several categories to enter. Every year, the memoir category has the greatest number of entries. Writing books and instructors tell us ‘write what you know’ and what do you know better than your own life?
Why Do We Read Memoir?
We humans are curious folk. That curiosity is one reason we like to read memoirs. We want to peer into someone else’s life problems and compare them with our own. Or perhaps we sometimes want to look at the life of a person whose obstacles in life are the polar opposite of our own.
Readers yearn to know how others deal with problems. Memoirs are seldom Pollyanna kind of stories. Memoirists bring the reader knowledge of how the writer dealt with a life situation.
The reader need not agree with what the writer says or did but they should take away something learned if nothing else.
Readers also like the personal aspect of a memoir. These are not made-up stories (they better not be!) but about real people and actual situations. Fiction is fine for some readers but others prefer true stories.
Readers also get a new perspective on what might be an old problem of their own. No two people handle a comparable situation in the same way. If I was addicted to painkillers, I’d be very interested in reading about someone else who walks in the same shoes. I’d want to know how she handled it. Was it the same as what I did, or might want to do? Or was it entirely different?
Remember the quote by Jeanette Walls in the first section? Her quote appears to work for both those who write memoir and those who read it.
Thank you Nancy for your thoughtful exploration of the reasons why we write and read memoir. The many reasons you list reinforce the importance of offering takeaways from your hard-earned life experiences. In the end, though the story is about your life, it’s not about you, as much as it is about the human condition. I am so sorry you had to endure the loss of two children. I’m happy you experienced personal healing from writing about it. I have no doubt your words have touched and will continue to touch many who need to hear your story.