Everyone who begins a memoir does so in the hope that through telling their story, they will come to understand their lives more fully. And the process is valuable, whether or not the goal is a published book.
Purposeful memoir as a contemplative practice is different than journaling, because it’s more intentional: as we follow the spiraling elemental journey of purposeful memoir, we explore our lives in a fairly methodical fashion, starting with the Earth years of childhood, moving on through the Water years of adolescence and young adulthood, exploring the passions and challenges we face at all stages of life (Fire) and engaging in deep reflection, from our current vantage point, of the patterns in our lives, and how our experiences lead us into finding meaning and purpose for our lives going forward (Air).
The practice of purposeful memoir is multifaceted and multi-temporal, spiraling through past and present in an effort to create, through the process of writing, a solid foundation for the future. It’s also multidimensional: we can’t really understand our individual lives if we don’t take into account our time and place, the broader social and physical landscapes that shaped us.
Through years of leading individuals and groups on this elemental journey of purposeful memoir, I’ve come to realize that this process has alchemical power. Through writing our life stories, we have the potential to transmute the inevitable sorrows and pain of existence into something more positive—the philosopher’s stone of understanding, which truly is worth its weight in gold.
The alchemical gold we seek in purposeful memoir is understanding—of self, society and world.
In writing my own memoir (a process that took about eight years and went through many changes in direction), I came to realize the value of the various trials and tribulations that life had put me through as an adult. As I wrote in What I Forgot, “I came from a family, and a culture, that always tried to avoid shocks of any kind—that held comfort as the highest value.”
But my most important teachers, like Gloria Anzaldúa, “always insisted that we need precipitating shocks to push us to move in new directions and grow.” Like Rumi, who famously observed that “the wound is the place where the light enters you,” Anzaldua valorizes pain as a source of wisdom and healing.
I didn’t really understand this until I went through the process of purposeful memoir and discovered that I was able to transmute my struggles—for example, the end of my marriage and my frustration with my academic career—into a deeper understanding of myself and my culture.
On a planetary level, it was only by wrestling with the scary reality of climate disruption that I was shocked into remembering my deep childhood connection with and love for the natural world, which I had been socialized into forgetting. Purposeful memoir enabled me to rekindle my fiery passion for the natural world, and thereby find a renewed commitment to environmental stewardship, the sense of purpose that had been so strong in me as a child.
The alchemical gold we seek in purposeful memoir is understanding—of self, society and world. The elemental journey—exploring childhood (Earth), youth (Water) and the passions and trials of all life stages (Fire), through a spiraling process of deep reflection (Air)—leads us to an understanding of what we value and want more of in life, and what negative baggage we want to jettison as we move forward.
In this new monthly blog series, The Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir, I’ll be offering opportunities to explore different stages of your life from the vantage point of positive qualities like Joy, Love, Strength, Courage, etc. I’ll introduce each session with some personal reflections, and then direct you to a free download of writing catalysts, so that even if you can’t attend one of my workshops in person, you can still get the benefit of doing the writing on your own.
My writing catalysts are meant as provocations and stimulations rather than instructions; thus you can’t get it wrong.
Each session starts with Lists, a tried and true way to call up and organize a lot of memories from different stages of your life. These lists can be returned to again and again as sources of memories that can be developed into the stories of your life.
Next, the Scene catalysts invite you to develop an item on your list into a full-fledged story, using as much detail as possible. Should you decide to begin weaving your stories into a longer, more fully developed account, these short scenes can serve as narrative entry points. At this stage, the assumption is that you are writing as an explorer, looking to generate new material and find out what gold may be stored in the nuggets of your memories.
To this end, I encourage you to use the focused free-write approach when responding to any of the catalysts here: write freely, in short timed bursts of anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, not worrying about form or grammar. Write to find out what you know, and to get images, sensations and emotions down on the page. You’ll have plenty of time later to expand, revise and refine the scenes that come up for you through this free-form initial process.
After the Scene catalysts come the invitations to Alchemy, where we explore the potent boundary between what is and what could be. It’s a powerful practice to give yourself permission to imagine paths not taken; to wave your magic wand and create different outcomes at key turning point moments in your life story. Although it is important, ultimately, to speak your truth in memoir, there are times when venturing into fiction will help you understand your truth more deeply. When we invite some alchemical magic along on the journey of purposeful memoir, sparks start to fly and we find the courage to reach down and bring to light the more profound revelations of our life story.
Finally, each session ends with a catalyst for Reflection, inviting you to do some informal writing reflecting on the mini-journey of exploration you have just taken. In my training as a writing teacher through the Bard Writing & Thinking Institute, process writing is a key strategy: we are encouraged to reflect in writing on the written inquiry we’ve just undertaken. I give specific catalysts for these reflections, which are meant to be open-ended starting points that you can take wherever your thoughts lead you.
All of these catalysts are meant as provocations and stimulations rather than instructions, and thus you can’t get it wrong. The only requirement is that you undertake your alchemical journey of purposeful memoir with an open heart and the sincere intention to probe your life experience deeply and honestly, using writing as your vehicle and these catalysts as your guide.
In a profound sense, we are the world.
Although the journey of purposeful memoir starts from personal experience, all of us exist as individuals embedded in the larger social and planetary spheres that surround us. We are the world, in a profound sense that most of us are only just beginning to realize. The process of purposefully revisiting our lives through writing memoir is thus a form of world-making: as I re-member my life, I re-member the world.
At each step of the journey we have a choice in how we approach this work: will I write to bemoan my hardships and mistakes, or will I write to share what I have learned from my life, for the benefit of others coming along behind or alongside me on the trail? In either case, we are not shying away from the tough passages in our lives, but the emphasis is on transmuting our negative experiences into the philosopher’s stone of understanding, with which we can brighten our own lives, going forward, and perhaps provide some wisdom that will lighten others’ lives as well.
The alchemical journey of purposeful memoir starts with the personal, and radiates out into the political and planetary spheres. Saluting the positive and transmuting the negative, we can and will transform our collective relation to the world we make together. It’s my conviction that as more of us undertake this journey, we will improve the well-being of the entire Earth community.
I’ll be offering these monthly sessions both in person and online:
Session One Seeking Joy
Session Two Seeking Love
Session Three Seeking Confidence
Session Four Seeking Community
Session Five Seeking Health
Session Six Seeking Clarity
Session Seven Seeking Passion
Session Eight Seeking Strength
Session Nine Seeking Guidance
Session Ten Seeking Courage
Session Eleven Seeking Wealth
Session Twelve Seeking Purpose