by Jerry Waxler
In the sixties, millions of us joined the counterculture in order to invent a new way to live. Our search felt so important and yet for many of us, it ended in confusion. As a result the quest to “find one’s self” fell into disrepute. That’s too bad, because a coherent sense of self is one of the foundations for a satisfying life, providing lessons from the past, confidence in the present, and a roadmap for the future.
Fifty years later, I find myself in the midst of another mass movement. Millions of us want to write memoirs. And this time, our collective effort appears to be much wiser, based not on the rejection of traditions, but on a deeper understanding of the guidance our society has been offering us all along. The Memoir Revolution allows us to tap into the ancient wisdom of the Story to help us pull together the pieces of self.
A perfect example of such an endeavor is Paige Strickland’s memoir Akin to the Truth. As an adopted child, she knew her parents loved her. She also knew she didn’t completely fit in. At family gatherings, she wondered how it would feel to be with relatives who were biologically related. Paige grew up, met her biological family, and then spent many years trying to knit these parts of herself into one whole person. By turning that journey into a memoir, she lets us experience it with her.
Accompanying her on scenes in school, I feel her fear about being judged “different” not only because she was adopted, but for lots of other reasons, such as pressures from friends, school, family, and so on.
Her account ranges across the whole scope of growing up, and appears at first glance to digress from the single issue of adoption. Many writing classes demand that students cut out any scene that does not directly relate to the theme. In this rigorous definition of theme in memoir, Strickland’s varied scenes with her girl friends in school might appear to be moving off point. But as our collective fascination with memoirs continues to grow, an increasing number of us want to stretch those rules and learn the actual experience of real life, even if it spills into areas outside the focus stated on the title and blurb of the book.
Paige Strickland’s Coming of Age story demonstrates that the Memoir Revolution is maturing. We are collectively moving beyond the memoir as defined by New York Times bestsellers, and coming to understand the memoir genre as a window into the mental machinery of ordinary people.
The evolution from “best seller” to “real person” played out in my mind in the first couple of pages of Akin to the Truth. When I opened the book, I was caught up in the promise that it was going to be about the challenges of meeting her adopted family. Two excellent memoirs that narrowly focus on these challenges are Lucky Girl by Mei-ling Hopgood and Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes, Both of these successful books breezed past the varied challenges of Coming of Age and headed sharply and concisely toward rediscovering the author’s biological family.
However, after reading few more pages of Akin to the Truth, I bristled at her portrayal of the complexities of childhood. Her stories about feeling slow in school, or about her socially clumsy dad violated my expectations of a tightly focused theme. Then over the next few pages, my attitude shifted. I found myself warming to her, befriending her, getting into her shoes. I loosened the expectation that every scene must bear down on her adoption, and I settled into accompanying a girl growing up.
As she grows older, her worries shift from wanting to be accepted by cadres of little girls, to the issues of cultivating her love life. The story of her extended courtship including false starts and apparent endings is excellent, and by the time they commit to each other, I am completely immersed in her charter to become an adult.
In retrospect, the book was not about reconciling with her biological family. It was about growing up. All of us must make this journey from fully-formed adults. This search for identity, often a laugh-line in jokes about the 60s, is actually a crucial mission for every young person. Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth provides us with yet another window into that journey from the fragmented self of childhood into the completed, competent self of adulthood.
Is ordinary life a good topic for a memoir?
Years ago, when I was gaining my early glimpses into the Memoir Revolution, I enjoyed reading the memoir A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel about a little girl growing up in a small town. The protagonist was adorable, and I felt like I was there, observing her family squabbles, her adventures in the neighborhood, and her concerns about her parents’ marriage.
But when I analyzed the memoir I couldn’t figure out why such a story, with no claim to gravitas or sensationalism, earned a place on the bookstore shelf. Over time, I have come to see that ordinary life is the backdrop upon which all memoirs are staged. We live in a home or apartment, go to work, go shopping, desire simple psychological basics like dignity, friendship, and achievement. Our daily journeys become the raw material for our memoirs.
Memoir writers like Haven Kimmel or Paige Strickland turn such lives into well-told stories. In order to follow their lead, you must learn the craft, edit, seek feedback, and revise. Your goal is to carry the reader along from page to page. By the end, your reader must close the book, feeling grateful to you for having taken them on a meaningful, personal journey.
Why are we reading and writing about ordinary lives?
Who are the readers of these memoirs of real people? Obviously we are other real people who, in addition to desiring a well-written story, also relish the imprecise lines of real life. Memoirs offer the authenticity of unique experience, help us understand our neighbors, and inspire us to share our own stories.
The experiment in the 60s to “find myself” ended in confusion. Now, fifty years later, I can see that a failed experiment is simply a step along the path to success. The goal to find yourself is still urgently important. But now, instead of using tie-dyed clothing, bell bottoms and marijuana to assert our individuality we are attempting to craft the unique stories of our lives.
Unlike the youthful focus of the 60s counterculture, the Memoir Revolution is energizing people of all ages. Young people are using memoirs to help them understand their transition into adulthood. In mid-life, people are using memoirs to help evolve their roles to the next step. And older people tell their stories to create continuity across many chapters.
At any age, if you want to tie together the pieces of yourself, consider Paige Strickland’s journey. She was adopted and had two sets of parents. But many of us have multiple segments that could benefit from the power of storytelling.
Millions of us grew up trying to find our identities with divorced parents and blended families. Immigrants like Iranian born, Firoozeh Dumas, in Funny in Farsi, had to figure out how to integrate their ancestral identities with their new ones. Rebecca Walker in Black, White and Jewish and James McBride in Color of Water had to reconcile being born with a white Jewish parent and a black one. And all of us who live into old age need to reconcile youthful and aging parts of ourselves.
Examples for Your Memoir Techniques in the Memoirs You Read
If you are attempting to find your whole self by writing a memoir, take advantage of Paige Strickland’s Akin to the Truth. Use her story to help you write your own.
She does an excellent job using the voice appropriate to each age of her character, from child, to older child, to teen, to adult. This technique was made famous by James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
She represents excellent scenes about the wide variety of interior conversations of the youthful mind, wanting to be accepted, crabby about a loving father who is dealing with his own issues, worried she doesn’t quite fit into her family for all kinds of reasons, not limited to ones of biological origin.
And above all, she gives an awesome example of developing a “story of self” gradually knitting herself together from the various parts.
You can’t change the past, but like Paige Strickland, you can organize the past into a story. By writing your memoir, you gain control over your understanding of it, shape the transitions, organize it with a beginning, middle, and end. The benefits of writing it are yours alone. When you publish it, you provide insight and inspiration for others to follow.
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