by Jerry Waxler
Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.
Carol O’Dell has never been in headlines. She was an ordinary woman raising a family when her mom’s mind started failing. When O’Dell asked her mother to move in, their relationship became laced with the humiliation and confusion of dementia, madness in the midst of normalcy. It’s a story worth knowing for millions of people in the sandwich generation. To learn more about it, read her memoir called Mothering Mother. And there’s another lesson you can learn from O’Dell’s book. If you think your own life is not famous enough to be worth reading, take another look at what is happening to the memoir genre. You don’t have to be spectacular. You just need to be you, and find the story in your experience.
For proof that people want to know about each other, stand in the checkout line at your local supermarket, look around at the ordinary people. You could reach out and touch them, if you wanted to get smacked, and yet you know absolutely nothing about them and they know nothing about you. Most of us prefer it that way, trying to blend in so we won’t stand out. Then, turn around, to see, also within reach, the tabloid racks, covered with photos of celebrities entering or leaving rehab, getting married and getting divorced. An entire industry brings their private lives into the supermarket, a testimony to the fact that people are curious about other people.
But why should we want to know so much about these particular people who have thrust themselves into the public eye?? All we learn from them is the artificially self-indulgent world of celebrity. Sometimes it’s fun but most of the time it’s plain sordid. I think we’re getting tired of limiting our curiosity to movie stars. I know I am. There is a whole world of people, and I want to learn who they are, what makes them work, how they feel, how they grow.
Apparently, I’m not alone in my desire to know about ordinary people. Look at the popularity of blogs, through which people share snips of our lives, pictures of our kids and pets, and what we did last night. Millions of people are reading this stuff. Memoirs are the next wave in this curiosity about each other. Memoirs let us go deeper, sharing what it was like to grow up, or to take care of someone in need, or to suffer a loss, or fight in a war. We can learn so much about each other through memoirs. It’s an exciting expansion of our ability to know the world.
Most of us only know the private lives of a few people; the ones in our family, and perhaps one or two close friends. Everyone else we see only in the fragments we come across in life situations or tales we share in conversations. As a therapist I hear more, but even in this environment memories arise in disjointed fragments, spread out over time, and not delivered in sequence. If any of them wanted me to really know about their lives, the best way would be to write their memoir.
It turns out that a memoir is by far the best way to find out what it’s like to be someone else. For example, Brooke Shield’s memoir Down Came the Rain, informed me about postpartum depression. Alice Sebold in Lucky informed me of the problems of coping with the aftermath of rape, an unmentionable topic if ever there was one. Martha Beck’s Expecting Adam takes me inside the experience of expecting and then raising a baby with Down Syndrome. William Manchester in Goodbye Darkness brings me face to face with the gore of war, of being shot at and watching friends die in front of you.
None of these topics are pleasant, and so, they don’t come up in polite conversation. And that’s precisely the reason I don’t know much about them. People don’t talk about these things, so how can I ever learn them? In fact, these topics are so unmentionable, people in these situations often feel isolated. But in memoirs, we can be frank. Writers record thoughts in private, and readers, also in private, enter the writer’s experience and learn what it’s like. If the information becomes too intense, they can take a break. No one has to react, offer platitudes, or hide their discomfort.
The insights from memoirs take me far beyond my experience, and far beyond my comfort zone. I would never have asked George Brummell what it was like to grow up black in the segregated south, starting to come of age in Korea, and then after being injured in Vietnam, starting over again, now blind. But I can read about it in his book Shades of Darkness. I wouldn’t know what it was like to be beaten by a stepfather, or to feel the other heartaches of a broken family the way I could by reading Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life. And while I might imagine what it was like for a daughter to take care of a mom with Alzheimer’s I would never have been able to see it so intimately as by reading Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother.
One of the powers of any good book is to invite the reader into a different world. Sometimes it’s sheer escape from our everyday life. But while we’re out of our world, what are we learning? I went through a decade when I was only reading murder mysteries. The battle between good and evil put me into a wonderful hypnotic state. But after years of escaping into the same type of world over and over, I was getting bored. Now that I’m reading memoirs, I not only get out of my own world. I also have a wonderful opportunity to enter other people’s worlds. By reading their lives, I understand a lot more about the people around me. One person’s story at a time, I’m finding that ordinary people at the checkout counter are much more interesting, varied, and offer many more lessons than the menagerie of celebrities facing me on the covers of tabloids.
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