by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World
When I was little, my family watched the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday. I was mesmerized by the silly, shallow host, so devoid of emotion he appeared to be a cartoon version of himself. As I became more savvy about mass media, I realized that celebrities cultivate this empty look, so audiences don’t worry about what they think.
When I was around 40 years old I went to a therapist and asked him to help me understand myself. He said “tell me your story.” After years of individual sessions, I grew into a deeper version of myself, with a greater appreciation for how my mind works. But something was missing. Therapy had not shown me how to understand other people.
In the early 2000s, I discovered memoirs. From the first one, I allowed my imagination to enter the tangled mind of another person. Through the familiar structure of storytelling, I watched that character travel through some aspect of their lives, from discomfort and confusion towards some meaningful conclusion. The more I read, the more I learned. Book by book, my understanding of the people around me grew.
Memoirs are similar to traditional entertainment in that they take us out of ourselves. However, instead of replacing our thoughts with the silly and exaggerated personalities of celebrities, or the formulaic plots of thrillers and mysteries, memoirs open our hearts and minds to the full complement of human insights, frailty and courage.
Through memoir reading, I became a passionate student of human nature in all its depth and variety. And as I increasingly expanded my understanding of these authors, I realized that I was growing in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. Understanding myself was not an isolated project. By knowing others, I was coming to make better sense of myself.
Thanks to the Memoir Revolution, millions of us have entered into a complex multi-dimensional social conversation. By reading the accounts of people who have struggled for years to craft stories of their inner lives, we learn to see the ancient form of Story as a key to the wisdom and strength of the human experience. And in expanding our understanding of Story to include the story-of-self, we are beginning to discover the stories embedded in our own memories.
Is it possible to be both public and authentic?
In New York Times bestseller Glass Castle, television personality Jeannette Walls came out from behind the camera to reveal her gritty childhood, growing up in poverty and neglect. Instead of ruining her public image, she became even more famous for sharing her past.
TEDx speaker and activist Rachel Lloyd stands in front of audiences, but instead of inviting them to look at her, she invites them to look at prostitutes and pimps. Lloyd’s memoir Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls Are Not for Sale challenges us to trade in the superficial glimpses we see portrayed on television and movies, and take a closer look at this dark corner of human experience. In a surprising poignant twist, in exchange for our honest gaze, she offers us hope and compassion.
Brooke Shields steps out from behind the glamour of her public persona to provide insight into the disturbing, disappointing and very unattractive phenomenon of postpartum depression in her memoir Down Came the Rain.
Going public with your ordinary life
Unlike Ed Sullivan who became famous for pretending to be no-man, Frank McCourt became famous for being everyman. His memoir, Angela’s Ashes was one of the early books in the modern memoir movement that demonstrated that sharing private life can raise social awareness.
Of course only a few ordinary people will ever be catapulted into the fame of a Frank McCourt, but all of us can use our words and stories to tease apart our own intricate journeys and find our social and psychological truths. In fact, sometimes those deepest truths are the very ones that make publicity seem like the last thing in the universe we would ever want.
Take tragedy for example. No one wants to talk about it. So when we experience it, we often feel totally alone. This is the opposite of fame, living in a vacuum, where our pain is too real, and too complex to be shared with anyone.
Memoirs break through that isolation. Through memoirs both writer and reader can participate in an open, healing process. Carol Henderson, in her tragic memoir Losing Malcolm takes us behind the numb disbelief and anger, so poignant she wondered how she could ever go on. Lorraine Asch in Life Touches Life and Sukey Forbes in Angel in my Pocket reveal similar journeys. Robert and Linda Waxler, in Losing Jonathan share their journey of grief about losing their son to a drug overdose. All these authors share the courage they required to absorb despair and rise above it, and the courage to share these intimate vulnerable feelings.
But it’s scary to show the real me
When Ed Sullivan projected himself into my family’s living room each week, he always said “we have a really big show.” It has taken me decades to understand that while he was showing the talent of his guests, he had an almost fanatical determination to hide their inner worlds.
Most of us try to follow his example, getting along by dumbing down what we share about ourselves. This reluctance to express your messy inner world might make it easier to get along with people, but it makes it much harder to get along inside your own mind. How can you ever know yourself if you spend too much time pretending not to be you?
This concern about offending people comes up often in classes about memoir writing. Aspiring authors fear that exposing real feelings will offend people. By coincidence, when I was first learning about memoirs, two of the authors in my writing group had to reconcile the conflict between truth and loyalty to their family.
R. Foster Winans, my first memoir teacher, told about his own struggle not to upset his mother while he was still revising his memoir Trading Secrets about insider trading. And Linda Wisniewski, a member in my first critique group, had to overcome loyalty to her family in order to publish her memoir Off Kilter about her battle for self esteem.
For a much more radical, and public version of revealing family secrets, consider Tara Westover, the author of the NY Times bestseller Educated. Her family tried to convince her that her own memories of childhood were false. She struggled in the deepest, darkest regions of her heart to fight against the tide of their threats and the undermining, crazy feeling that her own story would be hated and rejected by her family.
But if she couldn’t tell her story, they still owned her truth. Westover went on to earn a doctorate in History at Cambridge University. Her dissertation was about the conflict between loyalty to the family versus loyalty to one’s self. In the end, she found the strength to write her own story.
Most of us don’t need to go to that extreme. By banding together with a group of fellow writers, we begin to pull together our healing story to the best of our understanding. By constructing our story, in our words, we gain authorial control over our own personhood.
To advance your own memoir writing journey, join me and up to 8 aspiring memoir writers next month at our online class and group coaching at Memoir University. Take the journey from 2018 into 2019 by making progress on your healing story. For more information, click here: Write Your Healing Memoir. Starts Dec 6
For brief descriptions and links to other posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.
I am reading EDUCATED right now! Great story! Loved Frank McCourt’s books as well.
Thanks for the comment, Paige. Nice to hear from you. Yes, Educated is so powerful. I found that the ending was one of the punchiest of any memoir I’ve read.