Why Your Life Belongs in a Memoir, Not on Facebook
A friend told me that she would never write a blog. To her, it is the same as living your life on Facebook.
Another friend said she would never post anything online. She believes in keeping her personal life private.
I Agree With My Friends
The thing is, I agree with both of my friends. I’m not a fan of Facebook, Twitter or, honestly, any social networking sites. Nor do I enjoy so-called reality tv shows, gossip about celebrities, or listening to people’s stories when they hold cell phone conversations in public spaces. “You’ve obviously mistaken me for someone who gives a damn” summarizes my position quite nicely.
And I too was raised with the understanding that no one needs to know my business. The parental injunction, “What happens in our family, stays in our family,” morphed into an adult’s core belief.
I Confuse My Friends
It’s understandable if the above makes you wonder why on earth I’m writing a blog. After all, a blog is often defined as an “online personal diary,” a phrase that makes me shudder.
Readers of this site will know that I actually write more informational, research-based posts than I do personal ones. I tell myself, and you, that I do this for all the right reasons: I love to research, want to always be learning, and hope that what I write is helpful to you. All of those reasons are true.
But there’s another, far less noble, reason that I don’t do a lot of personal writing online. Quite simply, doing so is way outside my comfort zone so I avoid.
I Let Myself Down
By avoiding personal writing, or at least minimizing it, I fail to achieve one of my goals for this blog site. That goal was to learn to write creative nonfiction.
Seven years ago I read Rebecca Skloot’s incredible book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I have wanted to write creative nonfiction ever since.
Creative nonfiction is a blend of story and research.The genre is beautifully defined in Lee Gutkind’s book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up as “true stories, well told.”
I can handle the research part. The story is another matter. Gutkind tells us that:
“Scenes are the building blocks of creative nonfiction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do….Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place or personality, vividly, memorably–and in action. In scenes.” (pp.105-106)
So while I really do want to connect with women who want to live vibrant, creative, purpose-filled, passionate lives, I also want Profound Journey to be a testing ground for story. I want to learn to write scenes that show rather than tell.
Why Not Social Media?
While there are undoubtedly some people on Facebook who tell great stories, I’m guessing, from my admittedly limited experience, that they are the rare exception.
More often, given the frequency of posting and the difficulty of writing a scene, social networking sites seem to be about sharing other people’s content, which I get, and sharing the minutiae of a life, which I don’t. Echoing the premise of A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a book I reviewed last week, author James McBride tells us,
“We’re writing memoirs 140 characters at a time, which means we’re basically writing nothing. If you’re writing nothing, maybe you’re living nothing. Before you put your story down, first change the manner in which you’re living.” (p.164)
So that’s my first problem with social media. There’s just so much drivel online that no one could possibly care about.
My second problem is the messiness of much that is posted through social media. Author Meghan Daum suggests that it’s bad manners to “spill your guts or hand your whole, unedited and unprocessed life story over to the reader to digest.” She goes on to say,
“When you write about yourself–actually, when you write about anything–the goal is to offer up just the right ingredients in just the right portions. You’re not dumping out the contents of the pantry. You’re serving up a finished meal.” (p.82)
At the end of the day, it comes down to time and purpose. If you want to share other people’s content, social media is great. Or if you want to know the details of how your friends are living their days, that’s right there for you on your Facebook account, often with a photo or two. Social media doesn’t require sustained effort. When you only have minutes available here and there, you can connect.
But if you are interested in a finished meal, in the artistry of a “true story, well told” there isn’t enough time in a day or a life to do that kind of writing plus social media. In that case, you’re looking at writing some form of creative nonfiction, whether that’s a blog, a piece of literary journalism, or a memoir.
For many of us, memoir makes the most sense because it is, by definition, personal. While you may do some researching and interviewing, the bulk of a memoir is based on your history, your experiences.
However, a memoir is not a recitation of those experiences or a recap of your life. When you are dealing with your whole life, that’s autobiography. Memoir, instead, always fits a theme. Your theme may be based on a significant event in your life, a memory that has stayed with you, or a critical turning point. In a future post, we’ll talk about ways to find your theme. I’ll also write a post highlighting some of my favourite memoirs and the themes they discuss.
A well written memoir communicates a specific message and inspires particular emotions in a reader. Every detail in a good memoir relates to the author’s chosen theme. And that’s why memoir. The work of writing a memoir takes you so much deeper into understanding your life and being of service to others than a lifetime of social media postings ever could.
Five Great Reasons to Write a Memoir
1. Understand yourself.
Stories have a structure. There’s settings and events, major characters, conflicts and resolutions. When you write your life as story, patterns and themes become more obvious. You learn things about yourself that you didn’t know and you clarify what you value.
2. Challenge yourself.
Writing a memoir is, as Gutkind reminds us, “a daunting task.” Perhaps it is particularly daunting because, in the act of writing, you are figuring out some huge, likely unresolved, piece of your life. Also, for a memoir to work, the author needs to show understanding, if not sympathy, for other characters. That can be a big challenge when writing about some themes, but it’s an essential one.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live.Joan Didion
3. Heal yourself–maybe.
Many therapists and writers maintain that it is healing to organize your experience in print. It’s an opportunity to reveal the patterns and themes in your life, and to revisit events and situations after you’ve gained some distance and, perhaps, wisdom. Author Sue Monk Kidd explains it this way–
“Oddly enough, I find that the deeper I go into myself, the more I’m freed from myself. When I write about myself, I find release and freedom in the end because I’ve managed to distill the experience into some sort of meaning that I can integrate into my life, and then move on without all the preoccupation and unconscious pull of it. It’s the unexamined experience that seems to wreak the most havoc in my day-to-day world.” (pp.114-115)
Others, like Dani Shapiro, disagree:
“It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons. Writing memoir has the opposite effect. It embeds your story deep inside you.” (p.170)
4. Enjoy yourself.
Hopefully somewhere in your theme, there are some great moments that you will enjoy remembering. Because scenes require detail and the use of all of your senses, remembering these moments well enough to communicate them will bring them back to you in all their glory.
5. Improve yourself–at least your writing skills.
Writing well takes daily practice. If you take on a major project like a memoir, you’ll get that regular practice. Good writing also demands a distinctive author’s voice, meaning that you sound like yourself. When you have a developed voice your background comes through in your writing, as does your point of view, your particular sense of humour, and many other aspects of your personality. Writer’s voice is sometimes easier to develop through memoir because you are writing about a topic that you have strong feelings about and know well.
Three Horrible Reasons to Write a Memoir
Revenge, self-pity, and as a vehicle for whining about your life. Enough said.
Memoir echoes larger worlds. Every memoir reflects not only the individual but also the social, not only the personal but also the communal, not only the local but also the universal.Peter Gilmour
#1 – Why Your Life Belongs in a Memoir, Not on Facebook
Two Excellent Reasons to Share a Memoir
All of the advantages of writing a memoir will hold even if your writing is never read by another person. In fact, many memoirists can only trick themselves into being totally honest by pretending that their work is never going to see the light of day.
But if you do decide to share your writing, you and others will benefit in two ways. You will:
1. Strengthen relationships
Whether you are sharing your work with strangers, friends or family, people tend to appreciate the authentic connection that comes from honest writing. The exception, of course, can be people who are featured in your memoir. That will be the topic of a future post.
2. Help others
Author Anne Lamott says,
“I write memoirs because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help. I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be.” (p.131)
Although a memoir is personal, the theme a memoirist writes about is universal. As a result, memoirs are some of the most relatable and the most inspiring books.
Do you have any interest in writing a memoir? If I ask you the question, “Why memoir?” what would you say?