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.” cartoon political memoirs bookshelf nonfiction, fiction, fantasy

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 Yearsa 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)

Why Memoir?

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

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21 comments

  1. If you ask me whether I am interested in writing a memoir I would have to say “yes”. Thank you for delineating the difference between memoir and autobiography as I don’t think people, in general, realize they are two distinctly different ways of writing about your life. I could write either way but I like the idea of sticking with a theme and, as you said, focusing on a significant event in your life, a memory that has stayed with you, or a critical turning point.

    I have many such memories that have stayed with me and critical turning points as well. However, now that I think about it combining all of that into an autobiography would help whoever reads it see the chronological progression from way back there to the here and the now.

    When it comes to writing either a memoir or an autobiography it is that touchy point of others involved in my life that makes me cringe. How to deal with that is one question I need to find an answer to.

    1. Hi Susan,
      You can still deal with chronology when writing a memoir. It’s just that chronology isn’t the organizing factor as it is in autobiography. You can also have several critical turning points in your memoir, as long as they all revolve around the theme.

      My guess is that, after reading the other posts I’ll be doing about memoir, you may decide that memoir is the way you want to proceed.

      As for the touchy point of dealing with the other people involved in your life, and in your memoir, that will definitely be the topic for either next week’s post or the week after.

      Thanks for commenting, Susan.

      1. Hi Karen,
        Thanks for your reply and I am glad you clarified what you did about memoir. As I said, that is the way I have been leaning; theme, memories, turning points. It has a certain appeal to me. I am going to be extremely interested in your other posts in the series dealing with memoirs.

        I also wanted to thank you for naming me as one of the people that inspired you to write posts on this topic. 😀 I have said before how much I admire your ability to thoroughly research a topic and relay that information in an easy to understand way. This is especially true with a topic as important to me as this one. 🙂

        I really like that quote you have up there by Peter Gilmour. As I read it I realize it encapsulates what I hope to do with writing my memoir. By telling my story I want to help others who will be able to relate to having premature babies, having suffered abusive ex-husbands and being institutionalized. Those experiences changed me in deep and profound ways and while I was in the midst of them there were times I saw no way to survive and come out the other side. Now that I have, I want to share the path I took and what helped me along the way in order to give others hope and understanding.

        1. Hi Susan,
          You have some very powerful, life changing experiences to share. Once again you inspire me to research and write just as quickly as I can to give you the information you need to start on your path. I’m sure that there would be a very large audience for your work, and equally confident that engaging in the process will be a significant part of your profound journey.

  2. Ok, so you had me hooked on the part of your introductory email that said the posting was going to be on Memoirs. You may remember that I said I wanted to write one and you gave me some books to read as reference points. Well I read the books and started to collect research but in the end I went no where. I just could not get into it. Today when I read this posting, which promises more guidance on things like dealing with including people which might uncover some uncomfortable feelings, I became excited and re=motivated. I must admit I have wondered how to handle those types of relationships so once again I am looking forward to direction on that. My purpose in writing a memoir or so I thought was to pass onto my grandsons information about our family history. This I thought might give them some understanding about their cultural make-up, family stories, recipes that are used and why, etc. etc.etc.. So I am a captivated audience for your future postings on memoirs.
    You also had me on your promise of writing about Shylah. As you know I am not a dog owner, but I really want to know how things are going!

    1. Hi Fran,
      I’m really delighted that you are interested in memoir – you have so much to share, whether with your grandsons or with a larger audience. As I mentioned to Susan, people’s enthusiasm for this information really inspires me to work quickly and get it to you just as soon as I possibly can. I was feeling a drag in my enthusiasm for blogging so this is just what I need too! Thank you.

      And thanks for your interest in Shylah. It has been quite a rollercoaster ride. I have learned so much and am keen to share it next week.

  3. Hi Karen,
    I have never considered writing a memoir, mostly because I don’t write. The only writing I have done over the years is journaling, for my eyes only. A memoir, I thought was an autobiography and that would take forever. Breaking it down to significant events, turning points or memories that stick with us, I have many of those. One turning point would be when we got Jasper, the dog, how much he has taught me, and continues to. A definite turning point in my life. Something I could maybe write about. Interesting…would never have considered it, maybe I will. Enjoyed your post Karen, always gives me something to think about. Look forward to your next posts on memoirs. This seems to be the time of my life when anything is possible. Who knows..

    1. Hi Donna,
      I love it that this is a time in your life when anything is possible. What a great place to be!
      Your experience with Jasper would be a great theme for a memoir – if you decide to do it.
      Thanks for writing!

  4. Karen, like you, I do not like social media; it has always seemed to me that it can be a foolish, and quite possibly dangerous, habit to put one’s innermost thoughts and pictures “out there” for almost anyone to see. However, unlike you, I simply do not feel comfortable putting my thoughts down on paper (or computer). Writing a memoir would, for me at least, not be something I could ever do – in spite of all the very good reasons there are for doing so.

      1. Thanks Karen, if I could write even a quarter as well as you perhaps the thought of writing my memoir wouldn’t fill me with dread.

  5. Hi, Karen – Great post!
    I understand and respect that ‘social media’ is not for everyone. When used well, I find it does work for me (particularly since I love quick and current bite-sizes of information).
    I realize that it is a conundrum that I am a relatively private person, who has a relatively open and personal blog. I do believe that there are many others like me. I find that your subheadings are spot on. Each of them is a very accurate description of what I believe I get from blogging (i.e. increased self-understanding, challenge, self-healing, enjoyment, improved writing skills). As an unplanned bonus, when I review my blog stats, it is always my most personal posts that are the most widely read and commented upon.
    I don’t see myself ever writing a book-form memoir. But I do love reading this genre and look forward to reading yours, Fran’s, Susan’s and Janis’s (and any other reader-writers whom I have missed). Thanks for sharing this post. I found it very thought-provoking.

    1. Hi Donna,
      You seem to write personal posts so effortlessly. I had no idea that you are a private person. Was it ever a challenge for you to share personal information on your blog, or was that something you felt fine with from the beginning?

      I really would like to write more personally on my blog. Like you, stats show that when I do, it’s very well received. I think that’s going to be my first foray into memoir – blog posts before a book.

      1. Hi, Karen – It’s like Hemmingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Sharing personal posts on my blog has evolved naturally for me. What has surprised me the most is how open my private husband, sons, and ultra-private friends have been with me including them in my stories (they actually seem to like this….which has totally blown me away)!

        1. Hi Donna,
          It’s great that your family and friends reactions to being in your posts have been so positive. I hope you’ll share that impression again after this week’s post. It is timely!
          And I do hope that I also evolve naturally in my comfort with personal sharing. We shall see…
          Thanks, Donna.

  6. Wow! Thank you for this! As I mentioned in my earlier comment, I’m not sure I have a memoir in me, but I love the concept. I have lived – what I think, anyway – a fairly comfortable life (loving parents, good relationship with siblings, good jobs, one, ongoing marriage, etc.). Not that comfortable is bad – I’m not a fan of drama – but perhaps not the stuff of a page turner. I also don’t have children to pass it on to, so I’m not sure who the audience would be.

    I like the concept of creative nonfiction, and love the phrase “true stories, well told.” It reminds me if an Ira Glass quote I love: “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” I would never put myself in Mr. Glass’s league (not even close), but maybe creative nonfiction is a genre I should explore more to become a better writer.

    I am on Facebook, but rarely post. And I don’t tweet. For some reason, blogging is much more comfortable to me. Very few of my friends – on Facebook or not – know I have a blog. My introverted self prefers it that way.

    I hope this isn’t the only post you do on writing memoirs, I really enjoyed your insights and the resulting conversation.

    1. Hi Janis,
      You write such thoughtful, and often personal, posts. Your recent post about hearing loss is a perfect example. So, although I certainly understand what you’re saying about a comfortable life not being a page turner, I think you have really interesting insights about life that I certainly know your blog audience is interested in reading.
      If you’re interested in creative nonfiction, I heartily recommend Lee Gutkind’s book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. It’s superb.
      And thanks again for the encouragement and support, Janis. Another post about memoir will be in your inbox next Thursday.

  7. Karen, this was a fascinating post. Narrative, and more recently personal narrative, is a topic that I have researched and written about as well. With the turn to autobiographic writing, performance, art, and social media (e.g., selfies) in the last two decades, personal narrative is especially characteristic of our period in history.

    A number of years ago, I began trying to write trying a long work of creative nonfiction. It started as four linked short stories that related memories from my childhood. I had planned to continue writing a book-length piece, either weaving them into a memoir, or leaving them as a thematic set of short stories. But before I had even finished the four stories, they turned into fiction.

    One reason was that I felt that I had to fictionalize related others to protect their privacy. Another reason was that the fictional elements made it a better story. The story took off as a piece of fiction, and it is the only one of the three novels I have begun for which I have a complete draft. Some day, I will go back to it and work on the revisions.

    Jude

  8. Thanks for commenting, Jude. Your research and writing about personal narrative sounds fascinating, but what really piques my interest is your anecdote about the four stories turning into fiction because that made for a better story. That’s actually the topic of series post #5 – the whole question of truth in memoir, what we remember, and when what we remember would be better served as fiction.
    I look forward to when you have the time and inclination to work on revisions. I will be in line to be among the first to purchase your novel.

  9. Another great article, Karen.

    Yes, I am interested in writing a memoir and (as you know by now :-)) am attempting one as we speak. While I was reading through your post, I had this funny thought… So far, working on the book has not really taught me anything new about myself, but that is because I am not going deep enough in this first draft, which appears to have more “telling” passages than “showing” passages, although I am playing with dialogue. It is all new to me.

    I keep having little thoughts and fragments pop up into my head wherever I am walking or during whatever I am doing, that I want to add to the narrative. I take notes of those. So much material. But, I am getting off topic. Reading this blog, I all of a sudden wondered whether I want to put my story down and finish this memoir, to close that chapter of my life. To be able to move on and start the next adventure. And then, I realized that I like to clean up, downsize, organize, and keep things straight. Maybe, just maybe, I want this memoir finished as one of the many projects on my mental list that I want to be done with, to reduce things “hanging over my head” (when an idea takes root, I never let go of it, until I can address it), to “clean up”… Just like I enjoy cleaning up my desktop screen, or marking items off my list – whether it is groceries or writing projects. Wow. That was quite the ramble… 🙂

    1. Hi Liesbet,
      I totally understand your desire to write memoir as a way to organize and wrap up a segment of your life. I suspect it’s similar for people who make scrapbooks when they return from a trip – everything consolidated into a neat little package. And it seems to me that’s a perfectly great reason to write memoir. We should add it to the list of benefits!
      Your comment about not learning anything about yourself because you aren’t going deep enough is really perceptive, Liesbet. The post that I just published may help – “Why Your Memoir Needs a Theme and How to Choose One.” At least it might help if it’s the case that you are roving far and wide with your narrative. If it’s a different issue and you want to write back, I’m happy to research to see if I can find anything that will provide more specific help.
      Thanks for writing, Liesbet – the comment and your memoir!

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