What Lessons Can You Learn by Reading Memoirs

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World.

(This is an introduction to a series of posts about Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness.)

Every time I read a memoir, I let go and enter the story, enjoying the exploration of another person’s life. My immersion in a memoir is even better than merging in a good novel, because in a memoir I share a few hours with another human being. I see the world through their eyes, and allow them to lead me through the feelings and thoughts they experienced.

Most book reviews talk about the experience of reading the book. For example, if reviewing the memoir Surrounded by Madness, by Rachel Pruchno, I would report that the book was suspenseful, with aspects of a medical thriller, demonstrating that real life, when well-written can become an excellent reading experience. Not all memoirs are written with an intense focus on suspense. Because many aspiring memoir writers have never written books before, many memoirs, perhaps most of them, lack literary finesse.

However, I don’t read memoirs for their literary power. Instead, I concentrate on their other benefits. The lessons I learn from each memoir can be organized in roughly three categories.

What have I learned about the human condition? After reading about a soldier trying to recover from PTSD in Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved Him by Luis Carlos Montalvan, I learn about PTSD, about dignity and about the powerful healing affects of a service dog. After reading Martha Stettinius’ Inside the Dementia Epidemic, I learn about the powerful experience of a daughter caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s. And after reading Rachel Pruchno’s memoir Surrounded by Madness, I consider the awesome responsibility of motherhood and the terrible confusion a mother experiences when a child keeps moving off course.

A second set of lessons applies to the author’s journey to turn life into story. What can I learn about the memoir writing process from this particular memoir? I view each memoir as an encyclopedia filled with hints about the style and structure of the memoir genre. In some cases, I conduct interviews with the authors to learn directly from them. The four hundred essays, reviews, and interviews on Memory Writers Network focus on these lessons, offering aspiring memoir writers insights into their own memoir-writing process.

The third benefit I gain from most memoirs I call the nonfiction bonus. These are lessons about some subject that the author has learned through life experience. Some memoirs contain a huge payload. The memoir Inside the Dementia Epidemic by Martha Stettinius offers an in-depth understanding of the caregiving institutions for Alzheimers. Luis Carlos Montalvan’s Until Tuesday provides a fascinating look at service dogs and PTSD. In Surrounded by Madness, Rachel Pruchno’s daughter’s pushes Mom into the arms of the mental health establishment, As a psychologist herself, Pruchno applies her training to report on her own first person experience,  teaching a variety of important lesson about the evolution of a child’s mind that is being distorted by mental pressures at the borders of sanity.

In my next few posts, I will offer a number of lessons I learned from Rachel Pruchno’s memoir, starting with lessons about psychology.

Surrounded by Madness by Rachel Pruchno
Rachel Pruchno’s Website

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my book Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.