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 my memoir 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.
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, and that’s why I am always seeking to bring writers together, to embark on the journey in good company. Join me in the new Birth Your Truest Story online community and in my online and in-person workshops. Be prepared to be surprised and delighted by what you’ll discover about your own life story, as well as the life stories of your fellow travelers. Are you ready? Let’s go!