Mine has always been a writing life. As soon as I learned how to write, I had a notebook in which I began recording the events of my days, and writing the stories and poems that came insistently into my imagination. I was a dedicated journal-keeper, especially in my first thirty years when it seemed urgent to record what was happening in my life, and what I thought about it all, in great detail.
I slowed down when I became a mother, the daily rush of tending to family and paid work making contemplative time rare. But as soon as the kids were older and I had more time to myself, the journaling came right back, a need not so much to record the events of my life, but to understand and make meaning of them.
When I began to write a memoir, I didn’t go back through my journals. In fact, I’ve never re-read them. It’s as if the daily practice of “writing down the bones” of my life, to quote Natalie Goldberg, gave me the foundation I needed: a deep familiarity with my experience and my own voice, which I could easily summon to the task of recounting the essential moments in the path I wanted to trace through memory.
Memoir and autobiography, as I remind my students, are not the same.
Autobiography tells the entire, chronological story of a life, often beginning with “I was born…” and continuing close to the present moment of writing.
Memoir pulls on one thread in the tapestry of life, following the story it represents to its logical conclusion. A memoir can “cover” just a day or a week in a life…or it can trace just one theme or aspect of our complicated life histories.
Autobiography is often written by people who have accomplished big, celebrity-status things in their lives—generals, inventors, politicians, cultural icons.
Memoir is a grassroots sort of genre, inviting anyone and everyone to tease out the significance of the ordinary moments that, day by day, compose a life.
What I call “purposeful memoir” is the crafting of a memoir that will, because of the story it tells, illuminate an aspect of life that it will benefit others to know about.
For example, the spate of cancer memoirs in recent years are purposeful in their desire to share the experience of illness with others who are going down that road themselves, or may someday be confronted with the specter of cancer.
In my own case, writing about how I was socialized by my education and culture to disconnect from the great love of my childhood, the natural world, helped me understand how, writ large, this disconnection allowed so many Americans like me to turn a blind eye to the looming environmental crisis that has become all too real in the 21st century. As I’ve shared the book with audiences, people have told me over and over that it has prompted them to remember their own childhood connections with nature, which they, like me, were encouraged to forget as they grew up.
Without doing this fundamental inner work of tracing the path of our individual and collective alienation from Nature, I don’t believe we will be able to successfully heal the wounds it has caused our planet, evident in symptoms like climate change, environmental poisoning and species loss. So my memoir has an individual, society-wide and global sense of purpose, an alignment of the personal, political and planetary purpose that I encourage others to explore too.
Your memoir may be more explicitly about one of these aspects: a personal story of addiction and recovery; a political story of bigotry and resilience; and planetary story of restoring a forest…the possibilities are endless, just as our lives are sources of endless fascination and unexpected new experiences.
Whatever you are writing about, working on it in good company will make the way forward clearer. This new blog, Writing Life, aims to provide the kind of companionship that all writers long for, and that can sometimes be hard to find.
I’ll continue to offer the kind of guidance for memoirists that I shared in my book The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion, but in a more free-form style. I’ll mix short essays on craft and the writing process with personal essays and considerations of other writers’ work, including essays, memoirs, poetry and writing books.
I’ll consider the interesting, often messy boundary line between memoir and fiction, sharing my thoughts on the complicated genre known as “autobiographical fiction,” and why I believe that sometimes our deepest truths can only be revealed through the medium of fiction.
I’ll share what inspires me as I move through my own writing life—and yes, my frustrations too, since like every writer I hit bumps in the road, or sometimes absolute walls, which must be skirted, scaled and left behind.
Guest bloggers are welcome, so if you have a short piece to share about your writing life (1,000 words or less) by all means, send it my way! And you are always welcome to share your ideas via the comments section.
In writing life we seek, as Shakespeare put it, “to hold a mirror up to nature”—to call into words the intangible aura of significance that, whether we realize it or not, illuminates every moment of our lives. It’s a calling that often has few external rewards but offers deep, sustaining nourishment for the journey of life.
It can be lonely work. In this blog, I reach out my hands to others on the path, and invite you to embark on this writing journey with me. Sharing our experiences of the writing life as we move through it together will make the way forward easier.
Come now, let’s go!