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.

4 thoughts on “What Lessons Can You Learn by Reading Memoirs

  1. Jerry, I’m 100% with you about focusing on the message rather than literary worthiness. Although I’m a huge fan of the exquisite phrase, and I’d never encourage sending less than a person’s best efforts into the world at large, I have occasionally sensed that a line between authenticity and polish has been crossed. Real life has rough edges, and memoir that retains a bit of grit sticks to me more tightly than one with perfect polish.

    But even more than that, the memoirs that stick are the ones with powerful CONNECTION. These books have a story that speaks to MY dreams. That’s why I’m wild about WILD. It speaks to my dreams of gutsy hiking and raw independence. I’ll never do such a thing in real life, but how I loved living the experience through Cheryl Strayed’s words. She told her story well, and it was probably well polished. I don’t remember all that. I remember THE EXPERIENCE and how it affected me.

  2. Thanks for your fascinating comment, Sharon. You must have been reading my mind. Or I’m reading yours. I’ve been thinking about how much of the power of a good story happens in that magical space between teller and listener. When the memoir speaks to our hearts, it is successful. It is not always the BEST memoir, but the one that feels most genuine and “real.” Great points! Cheryl Strayed’s Wild spoke to me, too. Which raises the issue that each reader has his or her own personal relationship with the book. No wonder books are such incredible parts of our lives! Jerry

  3. Ooh, Lily, I love your enthusiasm. Thanks for being excited by finding my little virtual and very loose “community” of writers – I spent years trying to find a community like this in my culturally active region of Southeast Pennsylvania, but everyone is so busy, they don’t show up. Once I turned to the Internet, I find we can touch each other from around the world. What a neat opportunity to share energy, kindness, support and information to help each other craft our lives. Of course, the online community is amorphous with people coming and going but occasionally one stays around, or pays it forward, and we keep enough magic alive to write another day. 🙂 Now I have to follow your high energy website and see if I can find the time and energy to join your tribe. Best wishes, Jerry

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