Guest Post by Jerry Waxler
When I entered college in 1965, life was going to be simple. I intended to become a doctor and looked forward to a normal future. Within a few weeks of my arrival in Madison, Wisconsin, I saw my first anti-war picket signs. No one knew at that time that this was an early warning that cultural upheaval was brewing on the horizon. By the time I left college, I had been knocked thoroughly off course. It took me years to recover. Ever since then, I have been fascinated by social trends and am always on the lookout for others that might affect us collectively, and shift our thinking in new directions. In the early 2000s, I noticed a subtle trend that I believe has far-reaching ramifications, perhaps as big as the wave in the 60s that almost drowned me.
I observed that many people showing up in writing groups were attempting to explore the stories of their lives. In order to do so, they needed to share their secrets. At the same time, on television and through social media, we were collectively shifting our definition of what ought to remain private versus what would be shared with the world. By exposing more of our private thoughts in public, our stories about ourselves were becoming more intimate and authentic.
At first, I was a curious bystander, watching this trend from a distance. I had always been shy, hated talking about myself, and had no intention of revealing anything more about myself than I absolutely had to.
However, as a therapist and self-help fan, I have always admired methods that could help people grow. And during therapy, I had come to believe that finding one’s own story is a valuable tool for self-development. Perhaps by searching for my own story, I could overcome my shyness and participate in the social free-for-all of the Internet.
To investigate the possibility of joining the wave, I took memoir classes, read books about how to write memoirs, and loaded my bookshelves with stories about other people. By learning to shape my memories, and construct them into the organized container of a story, I was turning unintelligible fragments of my own life into a coherent whole.
During this period of research, I noticed a strange thing. Year after year, the trend kept growing. Increasing numbers of people showed up at classes, more people were blogging about it, and an incredible number of people were attempting to turn life into stories. And even more exciting for me, was the realization that the phenomenon was building on itself. Popular memoirs were giving increasing numbers of us permission to find our own stories. If each successful memoir by an ordinary person gave thousands of other people permission to find their own stories, the trend would go viral.
I first became aware of the contagion of memoirs one Sunday morning when I was giving a talk at a study group in a church. I was explaining that the Memoir Revolution had given people permission to open up. “For example,” I said, “many of us have experiences in childhood that are covered over by secrecy. We have been silenced by shame, or the rules of the family, or fear of looking bad.” A middle-aged woman in the back row raised her hand and said, “You mean it’s alright for me to share what happened to me in my childhood?” I said “yes,” and she began to cry. I could feel her emotional relief, even though she had not said a single word about what she had been hiding.
In another group, this one a writing workshop, a woman said, “You mean if I share something about myself that I’ve never told another person, it will give me permission to open up?” I said “yes,” and she said, “My husband killed himself and I’ve never been able to talk about it.” Every single person in that room turned toward her, eyes filled with compassion.
Such events have always been part of our lives, but without language to communicate them, we remained silent. Now, in memoirs, we are shaping the ups and downs of life into the socially acceptable container of stories.
Stories have been used since the dawn of civilization to help people make sense of their trials and tribulations, but through those millennia, most of our emphasis has been on fiction. In fiction, larger-than-life heroes and villains undergo exaggerated circumstances to reach convenient ends. The Memoir Revolution has allowed us to repurpose this story-form in a way that lets us make sense of the every day life of ordinary people.
When unpleasant things happen in life, we attempt to be brave, and look at the half-full glass. Another tool that is just as important as positive thinking is our ability to band together, to reach to each other for support and compassion. By opening up our secrets, and turning them into interesting stories, we have exponentially increased our opportunities to understand ourselves and support each other.
The Memoir Revolution doesn’t rely on tie-dye clothes, bell bottoms, marijuana. And it doesn’t rely on being young, or rebelling against the status quo. But in its potential to tear down the walls between people, and to provide us with a new way of understanding ourselves and each other, this period has the potential to be every bit as invigorating and stimulating as the earlier one.
To join this revolution, you don’t have to drop out, smoke dope, or march in protests. You just have to start writing anecdotes, and in the company of millions of other aspiring writers, attempt to shape those experiences into a compelling story.