One reason it feels good to write your memoir

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.

Finished Memoir: Angela’s Ashes

by Jerry Waxler

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt was supposed to have resurrected the memoir business, and so naturally I wanted to read it to experience the buzz for myself. I found that listening to it was a satisfying, and sometimes disturbing experience. The relentless poverty and pressures of life in Ireland was almost overwhelming. So why did I keep turning the pages (or in my case popping in CD’s?) Answering that question could help me understand what makes a good memoir. All along, I was in McCourt’s shoes and wanted to know what happened. What kept me in his shoes, after crying out at the futility of the umpteenth time his father drank his paycheck and lost his job?

Here are a couple of things I observed in myself as I kept listening to this story:

McCourt the writer is a master of the language. Listening to his voice was almost hypnotic. His use of idioms and conversational voice is spectacular. As a bonus, as he grew from a child, his observations and sentence structure often reflected his age, progressing from a child’s thoughts to a teenagers, and so on. I was able to identify with the character’s Irish culture, his age, and the emotions of the people around him through his use of language.

The book uses events in the world as a way to keep the story moving. So he tells of the coming war in Europe, then the presence of the war, and then its passing to let us know where he is in time, and what is going on around him. Showing us his world helps us feel present in it.

His sharing of the Irish culture kept me engaged. As with any memoir, I can learn about a part of the world that I can’t see by seeing it through his eyes. I was drawn to understanding what it was like growing up in Ireland in the thirties and forties. Irish culture was one slice of the human experience, and also from a cultural and historical perspective plays a significant role in western civilization, and American culture (see the book How the Irish Saved Civilization).

Another feature of a book that kept my attention was that it started with a challenge. This is a basic feature of every good story. The protagonist’s desire sweeps me along. He had many desires. To simply survive, to survive with dignity, to learn about the world, to learn about his relationship with God and people. The book is a classic coming of age story, compounded with overcoming hardships. As a reader, I wanted to share his experience as he grew up and overcame hardships.

The story structure offered an elegant example of one aspect of the Hero’s Journey. He left home at the beginning and returned home at the end. He was born in New York, moved to Ireland as a child, and then returned to New York as a young man. This storytelling feature works at an almost subliminal level to give closure. From the point of view of his development as a person, though, it leaves much to be desired. Still sinning and confessing at the very end of the book, he leaves the door open for a sequel in which he can continue Coming of Age.

There was one more element of the book that caught my attention. He was such a wreck of a person, struggling with the church, struggling with his value system, recognizing the terrible dilemma between his needs for survival and pleasure and that these desires often went against the teachings of his church. He discussed in elaborate exquisite, gut wrenching detail about how he struggled morally, and in his early years found relief through confession, but later stopped going to confession.

Later, in a moment of desperation, a priest coaxed him to simply tell his sins to a statue of St. Francis while the priest sat and listened. It was a stunning moment of storytelling and redemption. While McCourt talks to St. Francis, the priest is listening, and so are we readers. He offers a quick summary of the highlights, or rather I should say the lowlights, of his sinning. And then he feels free. I woke up this morning realizing that the entire book is one gigantic confession. By sharing his story with the world he is finding redemption and a sort of freedom.

And that’s a main “lesson” we learn from Angela’s Ashes. Memoir readers are confessors. And now if we write our memoirs, we can gain this same benefit and let our storytelling set us free.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.