by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn how writing your memoir can change the world.
I love the challenge of solving a good murder. In every mystery, I lose myself in the detective’s thought process. The two of us figure out who might have done it and how they might be avoiding detection. Criminals must be caught. Criminals are devious. Everyone is a suspect until proven otherwise.
Somewhere in my forties I realized I had spent an enormous amount of time thinking like a detective but I knew comparatively little about the way anyone else thought. When I noticed this gap, I switched my reading to include psychology, theology, linguistics, and artificial intelligence, and I listened to an awesome college course about Epictetus and the practical philosophy of the Greeks. I finally went to graduate school for a degree in counseling psychology, a great leap forward. But other than detectives, I had hardly any experience thinking like another person.
Memoirs elegantly resolve this deficiency. Reading a memoir, like reading a mystery, gives me the pleasure of losing myself inside another person’s thought process, a welcome reprieve from thinking like myself. At the same time, they expand my vocabulary of the human condition.
Inside memoirs, I think about the world through the minds of daughters, moms, and wives, survivors of poverty and mental illness, combat soldiers and immigrants, children, elders, adventurers and addicts. From their first-person point of view, I learn how they feel. And even more intriguingly, I learn how they think.
Inside each memoir, I listen to the protagonist’s thoughts and discover how their system of thought helps or hurts their ability to get through life. My favorite memoirs are ones in which the protagonist grows wiser during the course of the story. This involves them having some realization about how to think about their situation differently than when they started. By following these lessons, memoirs create a university of practical philosophy.
The lessons themselves are familiar, available from a variety of sources. Love conquers. Forgiveness relieves tension. Acceptance banishes anger. But inside memoirs, we accompany a person through the journey of learning those lessons. After a period of years, through setbacks and triumphs, the protagonist learns some deeper lesson.
An excellent example of this process is Martha Stettinius’ memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic. Despite the gritty reality of caring for her mother, or perhaps because of it, she is learning profound lessons that sustained her through this period. The memoir itself is not philosophical in the traditional sense. However, it offers a healing world view. After reading it, I feel enriched in my understanding of fundamental ideas about life. In the next two posts, I will describe the practical philosophy the author grows toward through the course of her experience.
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