Life and Death in Memoir

 by Jerry Waxler

I have enjoyed thousands of stories that involve brutal murder and outright assassination. Why am I so attracted to mayhem, when most of the time my thoughts are no more edgy than wondering what’s for dinner, or what I am going to do tomorrow? It turns out death is closer to everyday life than you might think. Just turn on the news — murders, war, disasters, disease, terrorism.

Even in the most innocuous circumstances, life and death battle under the surface. Take food for example. Fine cuisine sounds like it’s about pleasure and elegance. But that need for food is caused precisely by our need to stay alive. We try to stay as far to the alive side as possible, which results in eating more than we need. But eating too little can cause death. This balance drives so many decisions, even when we’re not thinking about it.

It’s the same thing when we pursue a career. On the surface, we’re driven by many things, by challenge and drudgery, pride and frustration, but we also need food on the table and a roof over our heads. In short, it keeps us alive.

When you tell your own life story, listeners and readers, without necessarily realizing it, are tuned in to the issues that kept you alive, or brought you nearer the edge of death. You can keep them engaged by becoming more aware of these forces, and learn how to insert them into your tale. Here are some examples of the way life and death might enter your memoirs:

If you escaped Hitler’s clutches, your story becomes a fascinating race for your life. But even if you didn’t have such a dramatic escape, look for any instances when death came near. When I faced an aggressive, armed policeman during a 60’s war protest, walked away from a broadside car crash, was mugged by a gang of kids, survived self-imposed starvation when I decided to eat only fruit, sitting peacefully one moment by a campfire and then thrust into panic as flames raced through the parched grass and leaves of the forest floor, I came a closer to the precipice. Children are especially vulnerable, so childhood memoirs like Jeannette Walls’ Glass Castle feel like cliffhangers, as we wonder how those kids are still alive. In Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, some babies lost the fight.

When important people in your life die, these are potential areas of trauma. Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking centers on this confrontation with death. In my life, I have lost my older brother, Ed, when he was 37, and my first cousin, Jules, when he was in his twenties. And there was John Kennedy. How did their deaths affect my life? Since then, my parents died, and friends have died, events that feel like a great, mysterious knot, tying together the forces of life, death, and love.

In war, people kill each other all the time. Even though most wars happen far away, they affect us in so many ways, whether we fought in one, had loved ones go off to war, been caught as a civilian in war, protested war, or fled from war. Whenever war touches your story, it parts the veil between life and death.

When I was sixteen, I read about the Nazi death camps. Only a few years earlier, across an ocean that seemed very small, millions of people had been murdered for being born into the same religion I was. Since then I have watched many people take their groups seriously enough to kill for them. So when you write about the group you are in, or ones you interact with, it might be appropriate to wonder about the deadly nature of group identity.

Look at the faces of sports fans when their team loses. It’s a moment of grief. Games are battles, in which adversaries fight, and the loser of the game symbolically dies. Kids cry over games. Gambling and other addicts step even closer, risking their property and sometimes their lives for the next fix. By conveying this visceral connection in your memoir, between competition or addiction, and the quest for life, your reader will be able to feel its power.

Wrinkles in the skin at first seem a mere cosmetic annoyance. But signs of age remind us that we are not going to live forever. As friends die, you may look more closely at the meaning of life. In fact this quest is a great reason to write your memoir. When you become aware of the dance of life and death, it prods you to dive in deeper to understand the urgency and intensity of your own story. And when you feel this connection, your reader will feel it too.

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  1. Pingback: Memoir About the Unbearable Courage of Living | Memory Writers Network

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