Why?

heart

“Why should anyone want to read about your life?”

I wanted to laugh. I probably would have, but the question came from my brother. (What brother in the world wouldn’t ask that question of a little sister writing a memoir?) And besides, he spoke in his usual earnest, really-wanting-to-know way.

So I explained . . . or tried to. I told him if I’m able to make this memoir work it won’t be because the content of my life is so fascinating. It certainly won’t be because I’m someone the world longs to gather scraps of information about. If the memoir works it will be because I have written my life the way I would write any story, with an eye to making my life matter.

I said all that, but there is something else I didn’t say. I didn’t say that the question he posed is the same one I have to push past every single time I sit down to write . . . Why should anyone want to read about my life?

I also didn’t say that some days I have no answer.

It’s the question every memoirist must confront, of course. But if you come from my family, particularly if you come from the father my brother and I shared, it’s a question that carries a particular sting. No one wants to know about you, my father would have told me, did tell me many times. No one.

The act of writing a memoir, he would have said, is egotistical, conceited, even repugnant.

My father was born at the very beginning of the twentieth century, and though he cast off the conservative religion of his parents, our Puritan forbearers’ repugnance for any kind of personal display permeated his bones to the end of his days. “That fellow,” I once heard him say in disgust when he’d heard a man telling friends about his upcoming heart surgery, “was feeling really sorry for himself.”

So from the moment I took up this memoir, I’ve struggled to dismiss the very voice I now hear repeated through my brother.

It doesn’t, of course, require my father’s old-fashioned Puritanism to sustain such a critical view of memoir. It’s common to see memoirists as self-obsessed. But however hard we try to hide the truth, even from ourselves, aren’t we are all ego-driven vessels? Perhaps memoirists depart from the self-obsession we all live only by daring to shape the contents of our psyches into art.

No matter how often I explain all this to myself, though, I have yet to dispel my father’s question . . . or the disdain that accompanies it. Why should anyone want to read about my life? (The fact that Dad died many years ago hasn’t diluted his opinions inside my skull. It means only that they have never had a chance to mellow.)

So I keep asking the question . . . and trying to answer it, too. And this is what I say to myself: We write memoir, we read memoir for exactly the same reasons we write and read story, any story . . . because we long to break out of our own isolation, because we need, again and again, to rediscover our shared humanity.

Something I used to say to my students . . . “The difference between life and story is that life doesn’t come with meaning intact. It just happens, one damned thing after another. Story is selected in order to create meaning.”

Memoir, if it works, makes meaning out of a life.

Every time I sit down to order, select, reveal, I am searching for the truth of my own days. And if I can capture that search on the page, capture it honestly, then surely my words will, as well, give my readers a glimpse into their own hearts.

Which is the best reason I can think of, my brother, for writing about my life.

24 thoughts on “Why?

  1. Anna Marie Black

    I enrolled in a memoir-writing course a few years back, asking the same question as you: why would anyone want to read about my life–I’m not a published book author, nor famous for anything in the larger world. For me, I discovered, it was to reclaim my childhood. I lamented so often in the MFACW program that I could not remember my childhood–as we were advised to look inside ourselves to our childhood experiences for writing material and inspiration. Of course, I’ve not published my memoir, its bits and pieces, but writing about my Self has helped to affirm my Self. Some of the writers in that memoir-writing group said they did enjoy hearing about my life. We readers will enjoy hearing about your life, too, Marion. We enjoy Story. We enjoy Life. I think our vulnerability as writers makes us pause to ask that original question. So keep writing memoir and set the standard for us, Marion.

    Reply
    1. Marion Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Anna Marie. I’m glad to hear that writing brought some of those hidden memories back. I remember my childhood very sharply, but still I learn more about it as I write. A fascinating process and worthwhile if only for myself.

      Reply
  2. JoAnn Guernsey

    Your modesty and uncertainy in facing this project add such a lovely seasoning to it–I know, having read some segments. There is no intrusion of ego in your writing but a skillful, thoughtful looking back, an invitation inside, much as you’ve graciously achieved in your blog, your fiction, your teaching and mentoring, your friendship.

    Reply
  3. Dallas Bradel

    As much as I enjoy fiction, I tend to value autobiography and memoir even more, I think because I know that this person has actually walked and persevered through the messiness of daily life in this flawed world. And, there is something both astonishing and reassuring to me when I discover a genuine heart connection to a person with whom I appear on the surface to have nothing in common. To spend time looking at the world through the eyes of another real person can expand our vision, dissolve stereotypes and misconceptions, and nurture empathy for our fellow human beings. Plenty of good reasons, in my opinion! I look forward to reading your memoir, Marion.

    Reply
  4. Jane Buchanan

    Absolutely, Marion. Hearing you speak about your life a few years ago helped get me through one of the hardest periods in my life, so I know it’s true. Remembering what you said about your wonderful life being built on a foundation of great sadness keeps me going when depression threatens. Write on!

    Reply
  5. Norma Bondeson Gaffron

    Marion,
    Was your father Scandinavian? My parents were. And we grew up under the law of Janteloven. It’s explained well on the internet: Don’t think you are better than anyone else, etc. How often I heard, “UFF Da, Norma,” when I reached out beyond for fame, fortune, recognition, encouragement…
    Gee, that sounds bad – but there’s a quiet pride underneath. Hard to fathom.

    One of my friends made an interesting comment on my memoir, “I wish everyone could read it so they would know who you are.”

    It goes without saying, Marion, that I look forward to reading your memoir.
    Norma

    Reply
    1. Marion Bauer Post author

      Thanks for your post, Norma. My father–both of my parents–were English. I’m sure the rules are much the same in both cultures. How that kind of self-abasement–and you are right, it is combined with pride–came out of Christianity is hard to fathom when you examine the teachings of Jesus. But when culture locks with religion, it has an iron grip.

      Reply
  6. Lisa Kline

    This post resonated with me, as I grew up in a family that is similarly modest, private, and stoic. So much of what happened in the family wasn’t ever talked about. I will look forward to your memoir even more, knowing that you have struggled in this way and pushed through the doubts to write it.

    Reply
    1. Marion Bauer Post author

      Thanks, Cathie. I had no idea what a complex task this would be when I started it, but I’m still going . . . and going . . . and going. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Reply
  7. Carleen M. Tjader

    I like how you describe reading story…reading to rediscover our shared humanity.
    It reminds me of this in The Last Storyteller, “Stories are where you go to look for the truth of your own life.”
    And I am looking forward to your memoir…tell your brother!

    Reply
  8. Mary Atkinson

    I love reading memoirs because they give shape to a life–in just two or three sittings. You don’t have to live one damned thing after another to find meaning. Someone has lived the life for you and taken the time to put it in writing. Memoirs are mirrors to our own existence. I can’t wait to read yours, Marion!
    BTW, one of my favorites from a Maine writer is Monica Wood’s WHEN WE WERE THE KENNEDYS.

    Reply
  9. nancyboflood

    and it works, the sharing of experience through writing and reading – why do we read? One huge reason is to understand life – our own especially, through reading about the lives of others. And to connect, as your wrote. The tremendous success of Facebook, I think, is that it offers connection. In our hearts, we are “herd animals.”

    Reply
  10. Joanne Toft

    Writing any story but especially your own is hard work. The work of the brave because you are seeking your truth. I find often our personal truth also rings true for others who have not yet found the words to express it. I often need other writers words to help me understand myself and my own thinking. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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