by Jerry Waxler
When Martha Stettinius’ mother became ill, Stettinius was forced to enter a world she would certainly never have entered voluntarily. Once inside, she learned much, about her relationship with her mother, her own compassion and willingness to help, and the impact the disease is having on her community.
When Stettinius lived through the events, she had to cope with the challenges and setbacks. When she turned the events into a memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, she offers two important aspects of her experience — her journey as a caregiver and her journey as a writer. By reading the memoir closely and thinking about what I’ve read, I draw lessons from both aspects.
In my previous post, I proposed two practical ideas that are embedded inside the author’s story of caring for her mother. Today, I describe two more healing notions. These philosophical points are apparent when I step back and consider the passion and effort that Martha Stettinius poured into this project. By turning her complex, often-painful experience into the shape of a memoir, she offers a path others can follow.
Practical Philosophy Point #3: The container of Story helps transcend suffering
Before writing a memoir, my entire life was contained in the raw collection of my memories. The limitations of memory seemed so natural and normal, I didn’t question them. However, after I learned about memoir writing, I began writing anecdotes and watched a narrative take shape on the page. Having embarked on this mission, I realized that memory provides a haphazard, emotionally inadequate way to understand my own past.
One reason why memories are inferior to writing can be found in the way our brains are constructed. In order to keep us safe, our brains are loaded with trigger points that set our teeth on edge as soon as an unpleasant memory comes into view. Another reason memories are inadequate is that they are stored in random order. When we remember our past, the sequence is jumbled and it’s difficult to remember how one thing led to another. As a result of these two features of memory, we tend to see our past as a collage of emotionally-loaded snapshots.
A memoir writer extracts this raw material from its messy piles and through hours of craft converts it into a well-constructed story. Stories are the containers that humans have invented to help structure the past, and the future, into a coherent whole. By the time a memoir has been structured, revised and polished, these same events are seen as steps along a purposeful path.
Martha Stettinius applied this process to her own experience. She constructed a story from the events of caring for her mother. On the pages of her manuscript, she reveals the purposeful courage to support her mother. She becomes the hero of the journey rather than its victim. By transforming the mundane reality of caregiving for Alzheimer’s into a Story, she offers us the image of a woman who discovers truths, overcomes difficulty, and finds love in the gritty spaces between challenges. By sharing the memoir with us, Stettinius elevates our imagination to that same hope that stories have been lifting us to since the beginning of time.
Practical Philosophy Point #4: Memoir transforms private experience into public service
To care for her mother, Stettinius was forced to learn about the stages and treatment of the disease. She reached out to the caregiving community where she found support not only for her mother but for herself. With their help, she learned and grew, gradually becoming a sophisticated partner in her mother’s care.
As the long, harsh journey continued, Martha Stettinius knew things she wished someone had told her when she started. She wanted to share this knowledge with others. This generous impulse required another round of learning. She would have to extend her expertise from caring for Alzheimer’s to writing about it. This attempt became a journey in its own right. She had to improve her skills sufficiently to craft a readable book. By attempting to write a memoir, she would provide information as well as solace to those who entered the dementia epidemic.
The instinct to seek community through the act of storytelling lies at the heart of the Memoir Revolution. Memoir readers want to deeply understand how others have lived. However, they don’t want to learn about someone who meandered through life. A good story has passion and forward motion. So every memoir author must go on the journey to shape their experience. In the publishable book, the protagonist moves purposefully through setbacks, carrying readers along to some goal.
The purposeful experience of the protagonist in a story follows the advice of psychologist Viktor Frankl. In his memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, he observed that living with purpose makes the difference between life and death, health and disease. He said that to stay healthy all of us need to live for something greater than ourselves.
Every memoir author attempts to follow Viktor Frankl’s advice, not once but twice. First they look back at life and highlight the purpose that drove them from the beginning of the book to the end. And second, they following the purpose of sharing this experience with the world.
Martha Stettinius’ memoir embodies such a two-stage search for a purpose. First she had to care for her mother while maintaining dignity and love. Second, she had to share her wisdom with the world. By writing the memoir, Inside the Dementia Epidemic, Stettinius transforms, Alzheimer’s Disease, one of the great challenges of the twenty first century, into Memoir, one of the new century’s most exciting creative developments, converting her mother’s illness into a message of healing and community
The construction of this book demonstrates that by writing a memoir, each of us can transform life experience from a sequence of events into a purposeful story. Constructing the story lets us exert authorial control over the messy process of being human. Giving the story to others allows readers to see the world through our eyes. They can use stories as they see fit: to increase empathy, to create community, to learn information, and to increase collective wisdom.
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