The Redemptive Power of Purposeful Memoir

The words that stuck with me most from Michael D. Cohen’s recent testimony in the U.S. House of Representatives were Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s pronouncement: “This is a story of redemption.”

Redemption: an old-fashioned word that means the clearing of a debt or a past fault or sin. Cohen, she was saying, was redeeming himself for his sordid past, by coming to testify honestly before Congress. 

History will tell whether or not he was being fully honest this time around, but in the meantime his story (apparently already being fought over by multiple publishing houses) has me thinking about redemption as one of the many possible motivations for memoir.

We all curate our stories to some extent, choosing what to put in and what to leave out.  Memoir is not sworn testimony, after all, and we don’t have to answer to others’ questions—only to our own sense of purpose in sharing our stories. 

This is why it’s so important to be purposeful in writing your memoir. 

Cohen’s story, should he choose to write it, will be about how he was seduced by the power and glamour of Donald J. Trump and lost his moral compass in the process. About how in the end, with his spine stiffened by his Holocaust-survivor father, who reportedly leaned on him pretty heavily to do the right thing, Cohen decided to redeem himself with honesty (and prison time).

Of course, we all know that if he writes a memoir, a big part of his purpose will  simply be making money. But on a deeper level, he will be sharing his story as a cautionary tale for others coming along behind him. I am sure Cohen is thinking about the kind of example he is setting for his children, and by extension all young people who may also be tempted to illegal action by the lure of money and power. 

As you think about sharing your own story, or work on crafting your memoir, you’ll be making many decisions about what parts of your history you want to tell and what you’d rather leave out. It is certainly neither necessary nor possible to share every moment from your life  (unless you’re a crazy obsessive like Proust). 

Here are some questions to help you think about making these decisions purposefully. 

  • When you think about your life history, what episodes carry the most weight of emotion, whether positive or negative?
  • What questions do you have about your life, for which you still have not figured out satisfying answers?
  • How might your questions and emotions resonate with or relate to others’ experiences or the broader zeitgeist of the times you have lived through? 
  • And more specifically: how will sharing your story, laden as it is with questions, emotions and episodes both good and bad, help your readers to understand themselves and our world more deeply? 

Few of us have stories as shameful as Michael Cohen’s. But all of us have parts of our lives we’re not proud of. It’s not necessary to tell all; it’s just necessary to have a clear sense of purpose; to understand whywe’re sharing what we choose to include in our memoirs. 

You have the potential to make the world just a little bit better, through sharing your story. Why not embrace that universal redemptive power?