Crafting your memoir restores meaning after loss

No matter how hard we try to push down old pains, they sometimes climb out of their graves like zombies. Some people try to drown their memories, pretending not to notice that the alcohol makes their pain stronger. Some lose themselves in work, which is good for the paycheck but not so good for the heart.

Healing begins when you face these old pains and try to disentangle yourself from them. Talk therapy helps to rebuild broken spirits. And thanks to the Memoir Revolution, our culture has provided a new path toward finding meaning. By translating the past into a sharable story, memoir writers transform even the ugliest wounds into sagas that help us understand ourselves and each other.

Some pains are so hidden we don’t even know we need to explain them

There are many types of old pains. Child abuse or neglect. Loss of a parent through divorce, disease, or addiction. Loss of a spouse or a child. Memoirs have educated me about all the ways that their authors have come to terms with these experiences.

One type of old wound I have recently found in a memoir is the tormented memory of a lost love. Julie Scolnik thought she’d discovered “the one,” but after pouring her heart into a future with him, she was plunged into the darkness of disappointment. Julie Scolnik’s Paris Blue, first shows the ecstasy. Then the slow motion disintegration into pain. Losing the bliss of love left a gash in the fabric of her universe sending her on a forced march.

The magic of this memoir is that the author refused to let go of what might have appeared to be a simple question: how did something so beautiful turn so ugly? If you know someone who clings to a question way past its expiration date, you may roll your eyes and say “get over it.” But if you are the person who is stuck with these ruminations, you know it’s not that easy.

Perhaps Julie Scolnik’s willingness to face agony was enhanced by her training in classical music. Musicians give a voice to these wounded states of mind through the great heaving cries of an operatic solo, or the stormy clash of kettle drums and blaring trumpets during a symphony. But despite all her self-expression through music, she’d never been able to put her pain to rest.

Pensive woman putting down baggage

Despair sends us on a search to find meaning

Grieving is not just one emotion. It’s a series of emotions, a journey really, through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression.

The goal is for the depression to eventually give way to acceptance. But if it doesn’t, you are stuck in depression. The missing ingredient in this healing process, according to expert David Kessler, is a search for meaning. (For his complete treatment of this insight, read his book, Finding Meaning: the Sixth Stage of Grief.)

After it became obvious to Julie Scolnik that her love was no longer reciprocated, she had to find a way to get rid of the pain. That need sent her on a search for meaning.

The story creates the path from pain to healing

Initially, she hoped her broken lover would remove his taciturn mask and simply explain why he walked away. Sadly his inability to verbalize his own emotions was at the heart of the problem all along. Without such an explanationm one obvious impulse would have been to blame him. What an awful man. Was he deceiving her all along? That explanation would allow her to pile bitter anger on the wound. Fortunately, Julie had no intention of going in that direction. She wanted explanations. And not just any explanation. She had the artistic sophistication, and the ethical complexity to know that simple answers would not provide her the kind of closure she needed. She decided that only the ancient power of a story would be enough to let her put this situation to rest.

I love when memoirs attempt to dive under the surface of human experience, searching for wisdom amid the pain. Kate Braestrup’s memoir Here if You Need Me tackled another great mystery. After she lost her husband to an automobile crash, she grieved. Gradually Braestrup turned her quest into an exploration of the nature of grace and the dilemma of good and evil.

Julie Scolnik’s memoir tackles a problem almost as large. If one partner is 100% committed, and the other seems to be, is it a form of emotional abuse when one of them pulls away? Was he a bad guy, cruel and insensitive to the women in his life, or was he a victim of his own emotional limitations?

Sometimes ambiguous answers fill the need

Julie Scolnik’s refusal to give up has provided her (and her readers!) with an amazing introspective workshop, where she could forge emotional suffering into a beautiful story.

Perhaps the story of Paris Blue is not just an expression of the author’s pain, but also its solution. Like the haunting emotional power of classical music or opera, or the unanswered questions of a magnificent mysterious poem, the answer to unrequited love is contained within the work of art itself.

Paris Blue offers readers a front row seat to the whole, painful, all-too-human saga, first of the initial joy of full-immersion loving, then of her crashing disappointment, and then her lifelong search for answers.

When I turned over the last page, even though she had not revealed any clear, clean answer, in some sublime way, the story itself answered the question of her pain. By letting me and other readers join her on her journey, I hope she was able to put down some of the baggage which she had been carrying her whole life. I know that by the end of the memoir I felt better. Perhaps by reading it, you will too.

For another article about the uplifting power of ambiguous end, click this link.

Should you include romance in your memoir?

The process of getting together with a romantic partner is so psychologically complex, and so fraught with pitfalls and doubts, it makes perfect raw material for a memoir. Then why have I seen so few bestsellers centered on this theme?

Perhaps the subject has been so over-reported in fiction that some memoir authors might fear that mentioning their own romance will sound cliché. Others might be reluctant to reveal such an intimate insight into their hearts. And yet, as the Memoir Revolution continues to mature, every possible life experience is finding its way into a book length story. It’s just that romance is arriving slowly.

Romance did famously play a key role in Elizabeth Gilbert’s runaway best seller Eat, Pray, Love. This was “her guy.” No problem. Unlike the inner battles of the romance novel, there wasn’t a lot of “should I shouldn’t I” going on.

However, in a second, less famous book, Committed, Gilbert went through every agonizing contortion you could imagine, trying to convince herself to tie the bond. Unlike the inner debates in a romance novel, Gilbert didn’t fret so much about the suitability of the guy as she did about her hatred for the institution. The book was a protracted intellectual war within herself to talk herself into getting married. Committed was so emphatically not a romance novel, one wonders if she was intentionally avoiding those tropes.

My next foray into what looked like it might be a romance memoir was the improbably titled The Happily Ever After: A Memoir of an Unlikely Romance Novelist by Avi Steinberg.

I already knew Avi Steinberg’s penchant for a strong nonfiction slant from his previous memoir, Running the Books about being a librarian at a prison. Unfortunately, true to his quirky style, The Happily Ever After showed me a lot about Steinberg’s attempt to be accepted into romance writer’s groups, but did not do much for my insights into the emotionally complex journey to enter a committed relationship.

Actually over the years I have read several memoirs which included the connection with a romantic partner – (see notes at the end for more details) — but in all of these, the storyline included other powerful themes, such as death, cancer, and in one case concluding she would better off on her own. So I was gaining a slow education in the way romance could be introduced into a memoir.

I did not run into a full-blown “romance memoir” until Never Too Late: From Wannabe to Wife at 62 by B. Lynn Goodwin. Not only was the memoir specifically about getting together as a couple. It also had the bonus feature of being by a woman who had made it into her 60s without having been married. It was a perfect opportunity to extend my horizons. And it didn’t disappoint. The memoir Never Too Late took me into the complex emotional territory of a romance novel, but completely within the style and intent of a memoir.

In addition to taking me on an excellent journey, I felt that B. Lynn Goodwin’s experience might help other authors who are debating whether or not to include romance in their memoirs. So I reached out and asked her a few questions.

Question about your decision/inspiration to write this

Jerry: At what point in your relationship did you realize you wanted to write about this experience? For example, had you been on the lookout for a deep story about yourself and realized as you entered this situation it would be worth writing about? Or did you become aware of the potential for a book much later in the period?

B. Lynn Goodwin: We’d been on 3-4 dates when I realized that if this relationship went any where it might make a good a memoir. Actually, I’d been free-writing with a group of married women, all younger than me, for about 8 years when Richard and I started dating. They had a lot more to write about than I did and somehow, I realized that I’d done many of the things that I wanted to, but I’d never had a chance to find out what marriage was like. I’d never even lived with anyone. Richard offered me that chance.

Did you have inner doubts about “do I really want to be writing this?”

Jerry: Never Too Late is an unusually frank and open look into aspects of your inner world that not everyone would be willing to expose. As you realized you might turn it into a publishable book, what additional self-doubts or worries crept in that you had to brush aside to keep going? Such as:

Jerry: worrying about his reaction to being made public”

B. Lynn Goodwin: Richard and I have done a good job working through all the compromises and choices we would have to agree on to become a couple.’ Though we still have our individual sides, fortunately neither one of us has to be right all of the time.

He sees life as black as white, and I see it in a spectrum of grays. I also pick my battles. It was easy to show this through our early encounters. Of course, he once suggested that after I wrote each chapter, he could write “what really happened.”  He was joking… sort of. As the writer, it was my story, but in the end we were still aligned.

When it was done, I asked him to read it. His response to the book was, “It’s all true.” He’s right. I love his honesty.

Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your own actions and choices

B. Lynn Goodwin: I was anxious about my lack of experience with relationships, but memoir writers reveal things that the rest of us keep private. Besides, it was no secret that I’d never been intimate. Most people probably figured it out immediately. Now moms often ask if I’m a grandmother, so whatever obvious signs were there about my single status have apparently disappeared.

Jerry: Worrying about what others will think about your writing.

B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t think my writing was bad and I appreciated when others pointed out what was unclear to them.

Inner debate as a cornerstone of the romance genre

Jerry: The whole basis for this story is remarkably similar to the Romance genre, which is largely about the journey of two people trying to come together as a couple. Did you make any conscious effort to follow or diverge from that genre’s story structure?

B. Lynn Goodwin: I didn’t have much experience reading romance novels, so it didn’t occur to me to reference them. If you’d like a little romantic symbolism, I opened like a rose, and my petals are still blooming.

Jerry: Okay. So even though you weren’t thinking about the romance genre, per se, you were certainly treading some of the same territory. Your memoir explores the whole process of choosing to enter into the partnership of marriage.

While everyone who has ever formed a relationship must sort out how much of themselves will be compromised, you have written a whole book about crossing that frontier. These decisions are especially complex and fraught for you because of your beliefs about gender, and your coming to this question late in life. Throughout the journey you write about in this book, you must weigh these questions in an astoundingly transparent and intricate series of self doubts and self discoveries.

Considering how differently the two of you were when you started, this desire to bond with this man, you had to use internal dialog to cross over some very complex terrain where heart and mind must come to some very important agreements.

I’m blown away at the content of these inner debates. You were asking yourself detailed questions about such an intense ethical and moral set of choices, almost drilling down to the heart of what it means to be a couple. Your story is a workshop in a dimension of personal attunement and personal ethics that most of us only ever think about in the background if at all. That is a fascinating journey. Thank you for taking us readers along for the ride.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Thank you for understanding what I was doing.

Jerry: The inner debates about what you will need to adjust in order to share a life are an amazing masterclass in this aspect of relationship building.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Still a student in this master class… Memoir is usually two stories. It’s the story of what happened and how the narrator felt then. The second story is about how the narrator feels now as she reflects. I’m often struck by the fact that no one can tell your story but you. If Richard were  to tell the story of our meeting and marrying, his would be different from mine. Even his reporting of our experiences would be different. My story might speak to someone who’s had similar experiences and thoughts, and outside perspective often helps.

Jerry: Your circumstances added some fascinating nuances to the equation. You had never been married, and had a lot of life behind you as a single woman –to give over half of your life to this other person was such a huge decision and you take us deep into the guts of your decision.

B. Lynn Goodwin: Absolutely. There are many reasons a single woman needs to be cautious. I needed to believe we were both doing the right thing so I would not live with regrets.

How much did writing act as a workspace for your own emotional evolution

Jerry: I definitely had the sense that through the course of the story, you kept moving the dial from “I’m comfortable and content living on my own ” to “I want to be in this marriage with this man.”

So I’m looking at your memoir as a sort of real-time unfolding of your own evolving self-understanding. I love that. I think you spooled that aspect of decision-making masterfully through the course of the book.

So while as a reader I’m seeing how you are moving the dial of your decision making process, I wonder what that was like for you as a writer. Were you using the writing as a tool to help you expand and extend and clarify your own emotional vocabulary during this experience?

B. Lynn Goodwin: I used the memoir to help me figure things out and to justify my choice because plenty of my friends had questions. It did not seem like an evenly-matched marriage, but they were applying different standards than I was.

Jerry: Could you say more about how or if you see writing the memoir as a part of your evolution as a person.

B. Lynn Goodwin: I write tons of short memoir pieces in my journal. I call them flash memoir. As I write I discover a great deal about who I am and how I became the woman I am. Every moment of evolution helps me function better.

Jerry: As a writer, editor, and a lifetime reader and literary person, how much were you consciously thinking of this as a journey through your “Relationship value system?” 

B. Lynn Goodwin: More than you might imagine. This is a hard one to answer, but Richard introduced me to honesty without fear of repercussions. It was something I’d always craved. I didn’t write much about why it was missing, because I wanted to limit this to our story rather than including excessive back story.

Jerry: What was the relationship of your passion for writing, with your earnest development of new emotional “muscles” in this time in your life?

B. Lynn Goodwin: My passion for writing helped me develop my buried emotional muscles. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d said no. I can’t imagine any scenario I’d like.


Other books with strong themes of romantic connection. Each has its own unique slant of course, but as you search for the best way to include the notion of romance, consider these other approaches to constructing your story.

Again in a Heartbeat by Susan G. Weidener. Romantic, connection, then loss, and grief. Then on to reclaiming her own strength as a single mom.

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Mellis. Romantic, connection, then tragic loss. A real ode to a relationship – and like B. Lynn Goodwin’s Never too Late, it took place later in life.

Click here to read my article about these two romance/grieving memoirs.

The Dog Lived and So Will I by Teresa Rhyne. This was a great, romantic comedy. And it involved a dog, and like the previously mentioned ones, cancer.

Click here to read my article about the adorable, brave and romantic memoir The Dog Lived and So Will I

MatchDotBomb: A Midlife Journey through Internet Dating by Francine Pappadis Friedman. An unromantic book that speaks to the horrors and disappointments of midlife dating.

How memoirs increase empathy

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

During my training to become a therapist, one of the more esoteric instructions I received was that when a client told me about their situation, I was supposed to pay attention to my own feelings.

I found this instruction unsettling, given that I had no idea how to observe my own feelings. It soon became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to help other people until I learned how to steer through the complexities of my own emotions.

Hoping to correct my deficiency, I read Emotional Intelligence, by Dan Goleman, and was heartened by his assertion that this “intelligence” was learnable. So I started on a long road of self-development, to increase my sense of empathy.

Years of being in therapy helped, but the real breakthrough came from a surprising direction. From reading memoirs.

I’ve always enjoyed losing myself in books. The problem was that in my younger years, all my reading matter was written by males. They involved very little emotional intelligence.

So for example, I read lots of books about people dying, but instead of learning about the emotions of loss, the story centered on finding the killer.

Other emotions were similarly superficial or ignored altogether. Take children for example. A mother’s love for a child was given a vague gloss. Cute but without any depth. And the experience of falling in love was a linear operation, with little time spent appreciating its complexity.

Back then, my reading preferences exposed me mainly to people who barely bothered to feel their lives. But when I decided to broaden my emotional horizons, I switched to reading memoirs. By immersing myself in each author’s inner world, I experienced what it was like for that one individual. And after I completing each one, I pondered how I felt about it, similar to the instruction in my therapy training.

One reason reading memoirs had such a profound influence on me was because I was also trying to write one. In order to effectively communicate my experience, I needed to learn how to communicate emotion. And the only way I, with my tin inner ear, could know if I’d succeeded, would be to get feedback from readers. So I joined a critique group, composed of others who were also trying to turn their lives into stories.

Together with a few people, all in a similar situation,  I discovered an exponential benefit. By sharing our works-in-progress, we were becoming each other’s teachers, not just in writing but in empathy.

The directive to “pay attention to my own feelings” became crucial when critiquing my fellow memoir writers. To give them feedback about the quality of their writing, I had to tune into the emotions they aroused in me.

In this way, the empathy-enhancing effects of memoir reading were accentuated (or “potentiated” in the parlance of neurobiology) – and as a result, year over year, I could observe myself growing increasingly curious about the whole range of emotions that had once eluded me.

As I continue to gain emotional sensitivity, I keep pushing the limits. Glad, sad, mad, might sound simple, but in their infinite variety of expression and nuance, they continue to draw me out of myself and into an intimacy with the human condition I never knew was possible. Memoirs were an incredible source for this never-ending variety.

Perhaps one of the most complex, enjoyable and emotionally satisfying memoirs I’ve read recently (or perhaps ever) is a surprisingly light hearted little book about cancer, named The Dog Lived and So Did I by Theresa Rhyne. As I set myself aside, and entered Theresa Rhyne’s story, I was in for a feast of emotion, artistically organized into a fulfilling tale.

For a guy who was looking for deeper insight into the realms of emotion, this book is especially valuable, because it weaves together three stunningly intricate emotional experiences: the threat of mortality, loving a pet or child, and most stunning of all is the entanglement of two people attempting to partner up.

Rhyne offers a rich drink from the cup of emotion, providing nuances about her specific circumstances that allow me to turn each of these situations over and over in my mind in new, unique ways. And it all added up to a terrific story.

In the case of cancer, first her dog, then (spoiler alert) she herself, must go through the grueling rigors of chemotherapy. But while the medical details of such a process might be cold and clinical, in a memoir the journey becomes warm and inspiring, filled with the intricacies of misery and courage.

And her relationship with her dog raises astonishing emotional complexity. While Marley and Me by John Grogan brought us closer to the family dog, The Dog Lived takes it a step further, making the relationship almost indistinguishable to the emotions you might expect with a troubled child. And in her love for her pet, it is easy to feel the full protective embrace of a mother’s love.

Finally, there was the romance – that terrifying process that in my younger male mind, I wrote off as a caricature only relevant in cheesy novels. I used to pretend that partnering was easy, or more to the point, if it was difficult, I didn’t want to know about it.

After I’d read enough memoirs, I developed a far more nuanced appreciation for the ups and downs of finding a romantic partner. Theresa Rhyne’s story pried me open further, making me even more willing to include the aching pain of romance into my ever widening circle of empathy.

The thing that makes this particular memoir so emotionally rewarding is the expertise with which the author weaves these three themes. Each one is as complex and nuanced as any good theme should be, and yet they add power to each other, providing a far greater story in combination.

Her memoir demonstrates the vast difference between mere memories and the stories they generate. Anyone who had to look back on this collection of past events, all one might see in memory might be a bratty dog with behavior problems, two incredibly disruptive scary cancer experiences, and an attempt to forge a relationship against unbelievable odds.

I am in awe of this nearly-impossible challenge that every memoir writer faces – to take the life dealt to you by destiny, and turn it into a satisfying page turner that resonates long after the book is closed.

How Theresa Rhyne pulls the whole thing together into such a lovely memoir is a testimony to her skill as a writer, and also a testimony to the enormous humanity of this genre – it is designed for exactly this deep human need – to enable us to immerse ourselves in each other’s emotional experiences.

I’m not the only one who could benefit from a course in empathy. My hope is that as more people discover the nuances of the human experience, as shared in memoirs like this, we will all grow more empathetic to the difficulties and joys of being human together.

Writing prompts

Write a paragraph about our most complicated romantic encounter

Write a paragraph about an encounter with cancer or some other life threatening and disruptive health issue.

Write a paragraph about a relationship with a pet, child, or someone else who both relied on you and caused you problems.

If you are feeling adventuresome, try to weave these three high-intensity interactions in your life into one compelling story with a beginning, middle, and end.

Footote about empathy and neurons

How could I, or anyone for that matter, truly be learning how to be more empathetic? Wasn’t I stuck with the amount of empathy I was born with? Based on the most up-to-date neuroscience, our adult brains can change. Through effort and lots of training, I was able to increase the number of neuronal connections responsible for my sense of empathy.

Our brains contain a feature called “mirror neurons” which enable us to empathetically relate to each other’s emotions. So in a sense, the best way to raise our aptitude about our own emotions is to carefully pay attention to each other’s.


Click here. for links to other posts about memoir reading and writing.

Grieving memoirs – a different slant

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis is a memoir about two strong-willed people whose relentless mutual attraction chips away at their individuality. When they discover that they are happier together than apart, their relationship is born. The memoir continues past consummation, into a marriage fueled by an unquenchable thirst to live life to its fullest.

From the beginning, John’s rare form of cancer hung over the marriage like a sword. Instead of slowing them down, the threat egged them on to passionately engage in culture, nature, friendships, and each other.Banged Up Heart by Shirley Melis

Both of them were on the cusp of retirement, anyway. So they seized this opportunity to cut short their successful careers and devote the rest of their lives to each other. Then time ran out. In a breathless chronology, the author leads us blow-by-devastating-blow through her husband’s medical setbacks.

Shirley Melis relies on the skills she honed during her career as a professional writer to pull readers into the details of their bliss together and then their frightening ordeal. She used scenes supported by dialog and contemporaneous material (letters and journal entries) to cut away the distance between reader and writer and allows us to enter her world.

The couple’s care for each other turned John’s downward slide into another chapter in their passionate love story. While their doctors fought his disease with the full weight of medical science, Shirley and John threw their full weight into trust in the future. They were determined to defy mortality and make plans for the next adventure. The power of love transforms the ending of their story into a sort of crescendo.

To satisfy readers, the ending of a memoir must wrap up the entire story in a way that allows the reader a visceral reaction—goosebumps, say, or a smile—that inspires them to recommend it to a friend. Banged-Up Heart achieves those goals in a way that surprised me.

In just about every memoir about loss I can think of, death takes place early enough in the book to allow plenty of time for the author’s recovery. This bridge from death back to life is one of the great gifts that grieving authors give to the rest of us.

Examples are plentiful. Susan Weidener’s memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, is also about a marriage ended prematurely by cancer. Like Banged-Up Heart, Weidener’s memoir shares the entire life span of her relationship to her husband, from the romance, through building a life together, and having children. Then the ripping away of a too early death. Weidener’s memoir, however, goes on to the next stage in her journey, as she tries to rebuild her life.

Rebuilding is the entire focus of Kate Braestrup’s memoir, Here if You Need Me. We barely meet Braestrup’s husband, who was killed in a freak auto accident at the beginning of the book. The lion’s share of the story describes the author’s long journey back, raising her kids and growing as a person. In the end, she offers a lovely perspective on the nature of good and evil, providing readers with the gift of her own hard-earned wisdom.

Memoirs about the death of a child also guide us through death’s aftermath, as the authors strive to cope with their devastating loss. For examples, check out any of these moving memoirs: Losing Jonathan by Robert Waxler, Leave the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples, Swimming with Maya by Eleanor Vincent, Life Touches Life by Lorraine Ash, and Angel in my Pocket by Sukey Forbes.

Well-defined story arcs about loss and the subsequent grieving process have earned an important place in my taxonomy of memoir subgenres, because each one provides wisdom regarding this fundamental journey of the heart.

I assumed that Banged-up Heart would similarly explore the arduous climb back to sanity and acceptance. But as I approached the end of the memoir, John was still battling for his life, and both of them were still struggling to visualize their adventures after he recovered. During this period, Shirley was too focused on hope to spend time grieving. As the pages flew by, I began to wonder how she would have room to wrap up the story.

In my impatience, I felt there were many details that didn’t add momentum to the story. Yet I carried on, drawn forward by the compelling writing, and my empathetic connection with this terrifying situation.

Amid so many upheavals and disasters, I wanted to learn as much as possible about Melis’ thoughts. In every other grieving memoir I have read, the nuances of the author’s interior landscape were crucially important. For me, that is the payoff for reading a story about loss. I want to accompany the author on this noble search to reclaim a sense of meaning. But instead of emphasizing her inner landscape, the author focused mainly on what was happening around her.

During this run-up to the end, with John in his deathbed, Shirley beside herself with worry, and me juggling my own expectations about where this was going, the story took a surprising turn. The result dashed my expectations and broke out of the “grieving story arc.” And it did so in a most satisfying way. Like the final moments of the movie The Sixth Sense, which shifted the premise of the entire story, the ending of Banged-up Heart caused me to toss out the expected storyline of a grieving memoir.

Melis’ exquisite, loving description of placing John’s remains in his final resting place helped me understand exactly what she was trying to do and gave me a rush of recognition. “Oh, that’s what the memoir was about.”

By ending the book the way she did — not with feelings of loss, but with admiration and love for her husband — the intent of Melis’ book instantly flipped. This was not the journey of sorrow and recovery, which I had expected, but a book about courage, respect, mutual support, and how two loving people can create life in each other’s eyes.

Although the story structure was unconventional, in the end, the book met my expectations after all, by offering me the two great gifts I expect from all satisfying memoirs: first, the life and mind of the author, and second, deep insight into a universal aspect of human experience.

By letting me into her life she showed me the unique nuances of her situation. She met and fell in love with John while still trying to recover from the death of her first husband, complicating her approach to grief. John was an unusual character, full of complex ideas and extraordinary talents. Their relationship was only a couple of years old. These individual variations gave me a sense of being with a specific person, at a specific time.

These specific features of their love offered me a fresh perspective on the universal experience of loss. The emergence of universal insights out of the cauldron of individual experience is why I love memoirs so much.

Love is one of the great driving forces of human experience. Some even say that love is the primary force and that all other emotions derive from it. And yet in the memoir genre, love is usually neatly tucked behind the thoughts, dreams, and needs of the protagonist. Shirley Melis’ memoir Banged-up Heart brings love out of its supporting role and places it front and center, as the hero of her story.

Memoirs that represent other relevant subgenres

Memoirs that Review multiple relationships

These memoirs review the life of several relationships across the author’s lifespan. Instead of praising one relationship, they lead us on the protagonist’s attempt to make better sense of these crucial features of emotional life:
Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse by Kathy Pooler,
Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers his Marriages by Boyd Lemon
Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro

Memoirs devoted to loving one other person

Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell — Love and loss of a friend.
100 Names for Love by Diane Ackerman — Her tribute to her husband mixed with the caregiving and cognitive rehabilitation after his stroke.

Shirley Melis’ Home Page

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