by Jerry Waxler
Yesterday, I was thinking about what benefit Frank McCourt achieved by writing Angela’s Ashes. Of course by publishing it he received world wide acclaim and lots of money, but I was thinking about the act of writing it. What was he after? Then I remembered his detailed descriptions of his relationship with confession, and how everyone told him it would all be better if he told of his transgressions. Well, here he was telling his transgressions to the world. The book was a massive confession, and according to the logic of his life, by telling us the story he was going to feel better. We are all his confessors.
If all he wanted from his story was the opportunity to tell it, he could have just written it in a journal. But since he wrote it so superbly, he found many readers to share it with. If he couldn’t tell it well, he wouldn’t find readers, and without readers, it wouldn’t be much of a confession, would it?
So consider this. There are two parts to telling a story. What you get from telling it, and what the reader gets from reading it. If you only pay attention to the first part, you might as well write it in a journal. In your journal, you can say anything. And frankly, that can feel good. Writing about yourself, watching the facts and observations roll out onto the page can be liberating. But with no sharing at all, the catharsis doesn’t tie you in with anyone. It’s not a social experience.
One of the most interesting things about memoirs is what happens in a memoir class. I’ve seen it over and over. The teacher gives some writing prompt, and gets people writing about some time in their lives. After the exercise, most people feel surprised at what they found in their own memory. It’s a little revelation, that the material was even in there at all. They thought they had long forgotten it, and seeing it now brings with it a bit of an ah-ha about some important moment.
Those experiences happened individually, before anyone reads aloud. But then after the reading, we find that the sharing had power to connect people. Even though the reader is looking down at the paper and reading words, their story draws the people in the room closer together. Very quickly, you go from sitting with strangers, no more familiar to you than if you passed them on the street, to someone with whom you feel you are somehow connected . The power of memories to bond people together is striking, and one of the payoffs waiting for memoir writers.
That’s a great thing that happens in a memoir class. But how do you get someone to read it in a different situation? There’s your family of course, but beyond that, if you are going to find readers to connect with, you need to put attention on how to tell a story that someone will read. What will it sound like? Are you presenting the material in an order that makes sense?
To gain the pleasure of reaching other people, you need to go from an explorer in your own mind, to an explorer in the mind of the reader, trying to understand what sounds well, and how to organize your thoughts into a story. That’s a pleasure that requires more organization than just writing in your journal. But when you arrive at that point, and find new ways to tell the story, you gain so many new dimensions of pleasure. It will make the pleasure of writing seem like only the first step towards a much greater treasure of connecting with people.