Memoirs – self-indulgent or connection to the world?

by Jerry Waxler

When the blogging craze first started it looked “self indulgent” – who wants to hear people talking about themselves? But this craze had legs. It turns out people love to talk about themselves, and to hear about each other. There is something oddly soothing about hearing another person’s tale, whether it’s about a daytrip or romance or hobby. And so, blogs continue to be popular, giving people a chance to come out from behind their barriers and share more than ever. It is a modern form of intimacy.

I suppose people who lived in a small village might have had more intimate connections, where everyone grew up together and knew everything about each other. We don’t live in those villages anymore. But we do have the internet, and this is letting us create our own customized community, a really big one, just like that crazy visionary Marshall McLuhan said. When I first read Marshall McLuhan in the 60’s I thought his ideas about a global village were cool, but unrealistic. That was the era of television, when you sat back on your sofa, and passively watched slick, over-produced shows. Television created a passive, almost zombie-like public. But now the internet is taking over. A recent study found that college kids are online 3 hours a day! Inside their dorms they are getting to know each other around the campus and around the world. As we settle in to the twenty-first century, the world is starting to take on some of the qualities of McLuhan’s vision of a village.

The internet has given our voice a global reach. Free blogging, forums, email, podcasts, video posts, photos, online communities, and yes even those old tried and true websites. We have so many more ways of touching each other. Much of the communication through these media focus on the tales of the day. Blogs often resemble diaries. That’s a start, but you can push that intimacy much further by writing a memoir. Instead of dashing off snips of thoughts from a day, share your whole story.

I love face to face writing workshops, opportunities to meet and teach and learn with real people, seeing their expression, feeling their presence. But it’s hard to gather people together in one place. They are busier than ever. It’s expensive and time consuming to go across town, let alone across a region, and we are all juggling obligations, including the desire to just stay home. But on the internet – Ahhh. You can dance and bob, jump and swirl, through the pages, like lightening, looking for images, ideas, people, places. It sets the mind free.

While I continue to enjoy personal contact, with each passing year I can see that the wave of the twenty first century is moving the village out of the face to face realm, a loss of one kind of intimacy, but in exchange it reveals a new kind of village at a distance. That’s okay. We’re people and we need each other. We’ll take what we can get. And when we look at these changes as opportunities, it turns out that by by applying the ideas of memoir to reveal your own experiences and turn them into narrative, you can get to know other people, not as faceless conversations, but as fully engaged actors sharing the stage of life. My goal is to provide a cross roads, and encouragement and insight that lets people share their story.

From the simple space of my desk, at 5:00 AM, a cup of coffee by my side, in front of a bank of fluorescent lights to jumpstart my morning, I am ready to communicate with the world. To do so, I need to find what works. What do people want to know? What do I have to offer? I can experiment, and learn by blogging. Blogs are good practice, to help me learn the art of talking about myself in a way that is useful and interesting to others.

When I’m near home in my physical “village” if you can use this term on a modern, automobile driven neighborhood where most people are strangers, I want to look normal and bland. But on the internet I can show how I am unique. By sharing my own journey, and encouraging you to share yours, we can individually and together, story by story, reverse the falling apart into isolation, and turn this world into a global village. I think when people get to know more about the person inside the shell, we’ll start appreciating each other more, and learn how to help each other in new ways we have yet to imagine.

10 reasons to take a memoir writing class in a cemetery

I attended a memoir class at a cemetery yesterday. There were about 25 people who walked through the gates of the cemetery for a happy reason, to participate in a community outreach program hosted by West Laurel Hill Cemetery, in Bala Cynwyd, outside of Philadelphia. Thank you for hosting this event,West Laurel Hills! I love community outreach in any form, and while this comes from a surprising direction, I’ll take it. And I love writing classes. The writing teacher, Mary Beth Simmons was also reaching out to the community. And there we were, enjoying the company of physical people, rather than electrons on a computer screen, which seems to be where much of the socializing is taking place these days. One of the participants is my sister, which adds an additional dimension to my memoir writing. The experience was so much fun, I thought I’d list some of the benefits. Perhaps this will help motivate you to take a memoir writing class at your local cemetery or wherever you can find one,

  • When listening to people introduce themselves, and hear their writing, it confirms that everyone has a story.
  • Free writing in groups is fun, and opens mysterious parts of your mind.
  • The desire to write has lots of power. Many people seem both drawn to and intimidated by it, like a tall mountain.
  • The history is in there, waiting to get out. Every time I think about my past, it gets easier to think about it.
  • Meet writing teachers like Mary Beth Simmons, the director of Villanova University’s Writing Center, who like a midwife, helps people give birth to their story.
  • It makes cemeteries less creepy and more like real places.
  • I learned about how someone’s grandmother or great aunt (I’m not sure which) from a small town really ran away and married the trapeze artist from the traveling circus . Life is at least as strange as fiction.
  • It’s okay to share with strangers – things I did when I was 10. In fact, sharing bits of ourselves made me feel closer to everyone in the room.
  • It’s a good excuse to hang out with your sister. Comparing and hearing memories with a sibling adds texture to the past as well as enriches my relationship with her today.
  • I made another memory. What was yesterday’s memoir class is tomorrow’s memoir material.