Understand Self by Looking Back: Memoir of an Examined Life

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World and How to Become a Heroic Writer

Throughout her career as a nurse, Kathleen Pooler cared for thousands of patients. At the end of her career, she turned her attention to the one person she neglected — herself. To give herself the retirement gift of finding meaning in her life, she decided to craft her memories into a story.

In order to write her memoir, she embarked on a process to learn the necessary skills. True to her generous nature, she started a blog so she could share her journey with others. As fast as she gathered insights into memoir writing, she passed them along.

As if inviting us into a friendly classroom, her blog introduced us to the writers who inspired her. By joining her and her “crew” we became part of her online community of writers who love memoirs.

Kathy Pooler was, in a sense, writing two memoirs at once. The book itself, Ever Faithful To His Lead: My Journey Away from Emotional Abuse, traces her journey as a young woman . Her blog covers the period past the pages of the book, chronicling her transformation from a nurse of physical health to her new “career” as a nurturer of life stories.

Looking Back to Understand the Unfolding of Things
Every day of our lives, dozens or hundreds of times, we wonder, “What should I do next?” Over years, these choices add up. At any given time, we are the sum total of the things we’ve chosen before.

To write a memoir, we look back and review those choices, attempting to understand what we did, why we did it, and what were the consequences. Such a retrospective view takes time and energy, and since we can’t change anything, it might feel like wasted effort.

However, even though we can’t change the past, writing a memoir enables us to organize and shape those memories and attempt to find the kernels of wisdom contained within them. That’s exactly what Kathleen Pooler did when she sat down to write her memoir Ever Faithful to His Lead.

Her life review recalls a young woman, filled with hope and ambition. By becoming a nurse, she accepts the daily responsibility that make a difference in her patients’ lives. Similarly, as a mother, her choices focus on her children’s well-being.

However, another type of decision sends her on a different trajectory. When she decides to marry, she abdicates her authority, and appears to be swept along from one step to the next like a leaf. This creates a strange effect, as if the only important decision about marriage was saying yes. That single decision determined the outcome of vast swaths of her life. Her next most important decision was to leave.

Through the process of writing the memoir, her dismay bubbles to the surface. “What was I thinking?” she seems to ask. And then she plunges back in, hoping that despite the story’s painful moments, perhaps it will help other people. So instead of trying to forget her lapses of judgment, she turns her pangs of regret into renewed determination.

When she asks “how could I have made choices that led to such poor outcomes,” she does not let herself off the hook with easy answers. Instead out of the flawed choices she weaves a story, and just as stories have done since the beginning of time, this one reveals the interplay between intentions and outcomes.

While the tribulations of her dysfunctional marriage pull her apart,the forward motion of the story relies on her relentless drive. She continually returns to her core values of family and faith, renewing hope and striving toward the good. By finally achieving her own power, she becomes the person she wants to be. And then, she keeps growing.

At  retirement, instead of considering it the end of her life, she charges forward with the gusto of a person for whom tomorrow presents unlimited possibilities. As is the case for so many participants in the Memoir Revolution, she turns the page of her life and opens a new chapter as a writer and soul-explorer.

The resulting book is a wonderful, inspirational example of the use of the memoir as a tool for an examined life. By reaching the end of her career and fearlessly asking “what did I do, and how did all that work,” Kathleen Pooler provides a lovely example of a moral inventory. She reaps the harvest of her experience, turning everyday life into the seeds of wisdom.

Her search for meaning demonstrates that self-actualization can be a worthwhile goal at any age. By following her new calling to find her own story, as well as encouraging others to do the same, Kathy Pooler has become a champion of the examined life.

Writing Prompt
To write a compelling life story, the most gripping work often emerges when you enter and portray the original scenes. For the purposes of this exercise, try bringing the narrator into today’s time frame. Write a brief story about you at your current age trying to reach back in time and figure out your former self. In this story, take advantage of the two time frames, reflecting back and forth between the logic of your earlier self, and the reflection of your older self. By experimenting in this way, you could discover a different writing voice. Such interwoven time frames are often most appropriate for short stories and essays.

Notes

Kathleen Pooler’s Home Page including links to buy Ever Faithful to His Lead
Another memoir of an examined life is Boyd Lemon’s Digging Deep which takes a similar approach, looking back to try to make sense of his story

  • Ruby Slippers by Tracy Sealey — Returns to Kansas to try to understand her roots
  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen –Returns to her Mennonite community to understand her roots.
  • Mistress’s Daughter by AM Homes — Returns to her biological mother’s life and attempts to figure out what happened.
  • Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent — Attempts to go back to her earlier life to understand if she could have been a better mother.

See also my essay called Will the Examined Life Become a Memoir Subenre

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

To order my self-help workbook for developing habits, overcoming self-doubts, and reaching readers, read my book How to Become a Heroic Writer.

4 thoughts on “Understand Self by Looking Back: Memoir of an Examined Life

  1. Jerry, I appreciate your detailed and insightful analysis of my memoir writer’s journey. Sometimes our purpose for writing is not clear until we finish the story. That’s why,the act of writing our life stories is so important. Eventually the story that needs to be told will reveal itself through the writing. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Hi Kathy,

    Thanks for stopping by. That’s a great point – when you first start writing a memoir, the project is a distant dream. It takes shape over time, and many things are revealed that could barely be imagined at the beginning. Sharing those insights with others elevates the experience of life to a much needed social exchange.

    Best wishes
    Jerry

  3. This is such a thoughtful review of Kathy’s journey, through her book and the blogs she’s shared with all of us who love memoir. Kathy has been an inspiration, and Jerry, himself, as writer and coach, has inspired us all to tell our life’s stories. Thank you both.

  4. So kind of you, Lorenzo. I appreciate your generous feedback and would like to add that you,too, have inspired us with your journey. Adios, Cuba is next on my list to read and I’m looking forward to it. Thanks for stopping by.

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