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Why write a memoir if you're not rich and famous?

What do a call girl, an ecstasy addict, a Calgary businessman and Canadian crown prosecutor have in common?  That’s right they all wrote memoirs. Yet none of them are statesmen, military commanders, famous actors, singers, sports figures or politicians.

 

Memoirs are no longer just for the prominent and famous. More and more people are discovering how satisfying it can be to record their lives and pass it on to subsequent generations.  Says retiree Robert Finertie--in a New York Times article about the trend--it, “has been a healing journey that has helped me reach so many things in my past. My wife says I have never been happier.”[1]

"Others want to draw their family together from disparate parts of the world..."

 

Others want to draw their family together from disparate parts of the world by writing the family story.  Denis Ledoux, an author from Lisbon Falls who teaches memoir, argues in a Time Magazine article[2] that a sense of continuity—either geographically or emotionally--has been lost between generations, oftentimes due to the demise of the oral storytelling tradition.

 

Hospices are putting the genre to work helping the dying and their caregivers write themselves through various journal and memoir type programs to relieve stress and the existential angst often associated with the dying. These legacy programs help relieve suffering by looking at the patient’s accomplishments and contributions made to society in general. People want to feel there is value in what they’ve done with their lives.

 

Some attribute the interest in telling all to a current “era of confession” where people are willing to reveal very private parts of their lives on TV talk shows, in poetry, comedy clubs, theater monologues and particularly in books. Yet, despite memoirs like James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that discredited memoir by mixing fact and fiction, the genre continues to thrive.

"Hospices are putting the genre to work helping the dying and their caregivers..."

For whatever reason, when most everyday memoirists plunge into the past they inevitably end up having some sort of therapeutic experience.  Dr. Paul Wilson, a retired California psychiatrist who appeared in the same New York Times article, said “It stirred up stuff that was quite different from lying on the couch and babbling at the ceiling while I was being analyzed.”

 

In my practice I have ghost-written memoirs for a member of the Canadian Navy, a Calgary businessman who wanted to record his family’s dynasty and contribution to his industry and for a prominent Canadian crown prosecutor. These were all self-published for distribution to family members. There were no author tours or fancy press conferences. Others have approached me about their family’s involvement in the American Civil War, to write about an immigration or prisoner of war camp experience, or just to pull together a story that would tell children and grandchildren where they came from, and in so doing, help the younger family members shed light on their future life paths.

 

People of all ages have approached me.  Though many retirees are interested, the average age of the memoir writer is trending down. Cases in point are Koren Zailckas, the author of Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood was in her early 20s when she penned her manuscript. Melissa Panarello, the author of the erotic memoir One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed, was a mere teenager when she wrote her book.

 

Many are inspired by memoirs penned by ordinary people such as teacher Frank McCourt who wrote the 1996 best seller Angela’s Ashes or Cheryl Strayed’s portrayal of her life on a gruelling Pacific Northwest trail entitled Wild.  The New York Times’ Mr. Finertie was so moved by Strayed’s book he enrolled in online courses with a writing coach, another growing trend.

"The most common comments I hear when memoir comes up are, “I haven’t done anything exciting enough to write about...”

 

The most common comments I hear when memoir comes up are, “I haven’t done anything exciting enough to write about,” “I can’t remember enough,” or “I will run out of things to write about.” My response to the first comment always points to the fact that we are all part of history, not just the famous. This fact was recognized early on by former British MP Arthur Ponsonby, writes Professor Joe Moran in his paper “The Private Diary and Public History.” Apparently Ponsonby believed ordinary lives are worth recording and are potentially more valuable than those of the eminent, “because they allowed us to enter into the trivial pleasures and petty miseries of everyday life.”[3]

 

When Joe Hausner decided to write about his experiences at 17 in Kaufering, a Nazi labour camp west of Munich, he was afraid he would run out of things to write about. With support and an exchange of ideas with a writing group he ended up writing some 30 stories.[4]

 

Memory I tell people is something you can work on using various techniques borrowed from the journal tradition.

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/11/business/appeal-of-penning-memoirs-grows-along-with-publishing-options.html

[2] Mitchell, Emily.  “Thanks for the Memoirs.” Time Magazine. April 12, 1999.

[3] http://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-private-diary-and-public-history

[4] Mitchell, Emily.  “Thanks for the Memoirs.” Time Magazine. April 12, 1999.

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