It’s a question that fascinates many older folk. Should I write my memoir? And what really motivates people to explore their life story? Won’t I appear to be self-absorbed or egotistical?
These are questions answered in Life is a Story: How to write your memoir by Mark Koehler. It uncovers the two main driving forces for memoir writing.
They are to grow, and to give. The first one, to grow, is about self-exploration. We nut out our story and in the process we learn more about ourselves. It is a road through exciting and creative territory. By writing, we find out what we think. Seems weird doesn’t it? Like it’s the wrong way around. The happy benefit is that we begin to make sense of ourselves and the world around us. Patterns emerge. Perhaps we have happened upon the wisdom of loving and living well.
Self-exploration has been a consuming interest for actor Shirley MacLaine, author of thirty-six books. In an interview with Barbara Walters she talked about the process of self-discovery:
“I know that one’s investigation of self can be the most important investigation one ever makes … I find that with my life, the older I grow, the more understanding I have of what is going on around me. I wouldn’t want to go back to even last week and be one week younger, because I grow every week … I’m getting stretched between my feet on the ground and my head in the stars.”
George Lazenby, one-time James Bond and always his own man, talks about determining your own path and bucking the system in the 2017 Hulu documentary, Becoming Bond. He says,
“I’d like people to know that you can defy what is expected of you, and write your own story.”
The second main motivator is to give something of value to future generations. To leave a legacy. It’s about being remembered (favourably). It’s a natural human desire that our descendants will know us – it may help them to know themselves. We want to make a connection and a contribution to the world and for those to come. To leave our mark. In a way, it will extend your life and it may be your greatest gift.
Why is this important? It recognises that our existence matters – in the physical and spiritual realm and in our relationships with others.
We have substance and soul and after we are gone, it is not just dust to dust. Your memoir may be the most special hand-me-down you can leave.
You could leave wealth in the form of money or assets – all very good. Yet money and goods are fluid – like rain, they come and go.
Memories, as ethereal and intangible as they are, have longevity. They have a future. And there are other ways we can leave a legacy. We could create a vibrant garden, build a house, take photographs, paint a picture, create a tapestry, or make a voice or video recording.
Growing and giving dovetail with life-story writing perfectly. They give us a reason for being on the planet.
Yet a memoir is a big project, so before you embark on the journey, it’s good to ponder your motivations. After all, a project like this is the stuff of life.
What kind of story do you want to tell? Who is your audience? Family or more general – this will affect your narrative style. Do you want to inspire, instruct, educate, or entertain?
Let’s take a look at several other reasons. It is a cathartic process. You may find healing takes place as you document past experiences, and traumatic memories are put to rest.
You might help or inspire others, as you share how you overcame adversity – perhaps medical or personal difficulties.
Many people want to explore their heritage and their culture. You may have emigrated and lost contact with your native culture, or have been an adoptee searching for a biological parent.
Or to reconnect with your heritage, as Evonne Goolagong Cawley says in her autobiography, Home! The Evonne Goolagong Story:
“I wanted to go back 40,000 years, to begin to understand something about my people, about who I was.”
You may want to write your story as a creative pursuit, or to document your life’s work.
There is the political memoir, and the ‘tell-all’. There is the dangerous territory of payback, which can so easily backfire. An old Chinese saying is pertinent: ‘Before setting out on a course of revenge, first dig two graves’.
Exposing injustice has a more positive ring to it, and the litmus test lies in this question: Will this make the world a better place? If you can answer yes, then by all means, go ahead.
Then there is the perennially elusive reason, to make money. (Best of luck with this.)
You can see that there is a lot of overlap in these motivations. But essentially, a memoir is to do with growing and giving. These fulfill and enrich us, and we hope we can leave the world a tiny bit better. That our passing meant something.
Have we been good ancestors? It is about leaving something of ourselves in our wake. To leave a little gift behind.
And there is the greatest keepsake of all: our love.
By Mark Koehler (founder LifeStory Writing)